AJ Nanayakkara suffered a spinal cord injury in 1994 that left him with quadriplegia and a poor outlook on life. After learning about Magee's quad rugby team, AJ realized life, though different, can go on.
As a member of the Magee Eagles quad rugby team, AJ always strives to be the best at whatever he does. According to AJ, he is not by nature an athletic person, so he feels that he must work harder than everyone else just to be an average athlete. His motivation to be the best makes him train even harder. "I love the game of quad rugby! My position in any line-up is usually considered the weakest link on the floor. In order to give my team the best chance to win, I must be as strong and as fast as I can be. I live to be able to shut down an opponent who is supposed to be much better than me!"
AJ Nanayakkara chose to test his athletic skills against the nation's top wheelchair rugby athletes. He was invited to try out for Team USA's developmental squad. AJ held his own and was named to the 16-member squad.
As a member of the 2005 Team USA Wheelchair Rugby squad, A.J. traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to take on the best wheelchair rugby teams in the world. Nanayakkara's USA Stripes team took home the gold medal.
"I was very proud and honored to represent my country at the World Wheelchair Games," says AJ. "It was a cool feeling when they put the gold medal around my neck. To be considered one of the best in the world at what you do is a great feeling. My parents were there watching, and they were very proud."
AJ's family has been very instrumental in his success as a person. Throughout his years of depression and hopelessness, his family, especially his parents, were always loving and non-judgmental. He has only recently begun to appreciate the support and love that his family has given him through the years. "My family's pride in me is one of the biggest motivators in my life," says AJ.
AJ is looking to the future. He is training to make the U.S. Olympic team some day. He hopes through hard work and a consistent training regimen to earn a spot on the team that competes in Beijing in 2008 or London in 2012. As for the Magee Eagles, AJ's goal is to help them be the best team that they can be. He hopes to eventually get into coaching quad rugby and help teach new players to appreciate the game. "There are so many potential rugby players in the Philadelphia area who could benefit from coming out for the team, and I want to introduce the game to as many new initiates as possible."
Nanayakkara also gets a great feeling helping other wheelchair users. As a member of Magee's volunteer Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) Peer Mentoring Program, he helps lead inpatient groups and conducts one-on-one peer counseling. He listens to patients and empathizes with them as well as educates them on practical tips for performing activities related to daily living and staying healthy. "It makes me feel good to talk to patients at Magee because I can relate to them," he says. "If I can help incoming patients adjust better, then that makes me proud. My main piece of advice to someone with a spinal cord injury is to get involved in something, anything. Make sure to find a social outlet where you have an opportunity to routinely interact with others. Eventually, life in a chair can be as normal as you choose to make it."
AJ also creates artwork. Though he liked drawing when he was growing up, his passion for art was sparked after an art therapist got him to draw. Art offered him an outlet to do something fun and it allowed him to express his emotions without directly coming out and saying them. AJ has twice been included in Magee's annual calendar that features art created by individuals with disabilities. In addition, he is studying psychology at Temple University and wants to become a clinical psychologist for individuals with disabilities.