Matt Wooloff: From teenage leukaemia to the pinnacle of wheelchair rugby league

Sebastian Sternik
Matt Wooloff wheelchair rugby league SWpix

Photo: John Clifton/SWpix

Today, Matt Wooloff plays for the Wigan wheelchair team and is a proud USA international – his journey to get there, however, has been filled with trials and tribulations.

The last few months have certainly been eventful for the 29-year-old, who not only represented the United States at the World Cup but has also become a try-scoring machine for Wigan

Wooloff has already bagged seven tries in three games in the new 2023 season – all of them coming against last year’s Grand Finalists in Halifax and Leeds. 

However, Wooloff’s journey has not always been this simple. 

When asked about his story, he said: “I played rugby union as a kid. I had a leukaemia when I was a teenager. It destroyed the bones in my ankles. 

“I was out of sport from the age of 13 to 20. Then in 2014 I decided I wanted to try a wheelchair sport. 

“Wheelchair ruby league was the closest thing available to rugby and I was always going to end up playing some kind of rugby. 

“I went along to Swindon as it was the nearest to me in Bath. I played for them for a couple of years and fell in love with it. Then I moved up to North Wales and played against the Leyland Warriors a couple of times prior to the merger with Wigan Warriors. 

“I knew they were the real deal and I wanted to be a part of that team as I believe my skills had plateaued a little. I knew that playing for Leyland, and now as Wigan, would kick on my skills and force me to become a better player.”

Matt Wooloff: Playing at the World Cup was a dream come true

Matt Wooloff USA World Cup Wigan Warriors wheelchair rugby league SWpix
Photo: John Clifton/SWpix

Wooloff admitted the sport means ‘everything’ to him and revealed the opportunity of playing at a World Cup was a ‘dream come true’.

He said: “I was a huge rugby nut when I was a kid and had it taken away from me. But I never lost the passion and after finding it again, I would train every day of the week if there were sessions. 

“I love playing wheelchair rugby league. It was a dream to play any form of rugby at the top level. Achieving that at the World Cup was a dream come true. 

“I think there’s a picture of me hugging my dad after coming off from the Scotland game. I still tear up when I see that because that is everything I ever wanted as a kid. It was incredible.”

A touching tribute to a good friend

When asked about his inspiration, Wooloff pointed to an old friend who helped him with the battle against leukaemia.

He said: “I had a friend when I was first going through my cancer – his name was Alex Lewis. He was a bit older than me, and he had his cancer for a while.

“I was introduced to him in a pit of despair after my diagnosis. He talked me through the procedure, talked me through everything that was going to happen to me. 

“He really brought me out of that pit. Alex had this amazing philosophy of not letting anything negative ever touch his mood, ever touch his goals. He really instilled that in me as well. 

“I owe a big part of everything that I’ve achieved, and am, to Alex. 

“Unfortunately, he relapsed, and passed away a couple of years after I went into remission. I would say he is still my biggest influence and still my biggest light.”

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