Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, is a portrait of small-town America. It’s the type of place where everyone waves to each other, where people marry their high school sweetheart, where blue-collar men work at the local factory. Set along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, the town is home to less than 6,000 people — making it highly unlikely, by just about any statistical calculation, that even one Olympic bronze medalist would come from there.
Imagine the odds of two.
More than that, imagine that those two just happened to have graduated in the same class of less than 130 kids. Such is the case for Matt Antoine, 2014 Olympic bronze medalist in skeleton, and Joe Delagrave, 2012 Paralympic bronze medalist in wheelchair rugby. Their stories are the same. Their stories are very different.
Antoine and Delagrave weren’t friends growing up, but they knew each other. Everyone in Prairie du Chien knows each other. Antoine played on the golf team and ran on the track team. He was, in his words, a “pretty decent” 200-meter runner, but he never really considered himself a serious athlete.
“For me, playing sports was just a leisure activity,” Antoine says. “It was a way to meet friends and have some fun. But Joe, he was the ultimate athlete. He was the star at everything. Football. Basketball. Baseball. He even sang in the high school musical. Everyone loved Joe.”
After graduating in 2003, Delagrave went to Winona State University on a football scholarship. He was a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end with athletic ability to spare. He was just getting started. But then, in the summer following his freshman year, on July 10, 2004, Delagrave was out on a boat on the Mississippi River with some friends. One of those friends was driving. The other was being towed on a kneeboard. At some point a quick turn was made, the boat hit the river bottom, and Delagrave, from his seat, was shot forward, colliding with the bow and breaking his neck. He was 19 years old, and he would never walk again.
“Initially, to be honest, I was in pretty good spirits considering everything. I was at peace,” Delagrave said. “But the athlete part of me, that’s what was really hard. Growing up playing sports all throughout my life, it’s one of those things that you don’t like to say it defines you, but that’s how I identified with myself, as an athlete. The idea that I would never play sports again was very hard to deal with.”
Sliding To The Top
By this point, Matt Antoine had begun to discover his own inner-athlete. While watching the 2002 Olympic Winter Games on TV, he was drawn to the rather obscure sport of skeleton, which was making its return to the Olympic program for the first time since 1948. A sliding sport not too unlike bobsledding, only with the rider lying face down on a small sled, skeleton riders can reach speeds north of 80 mph, and Antoine loved “anything that went fast.”
Not only that, but Antoine’s lack of athletic ambition during his formative years wasn’t nearly the inhibitor that it might be with, say, a more mainstream sport that kids have been playing all their lives. In other words, nobody had a jump on him. It’s not like little kids are going to skeleton camp when they’re 6. Nobody does skeleton until they’re 17 or 18 years old at the earliest, and, in fact, almost everyone comes from a track background.
“They want you to be an athlete, to have that ability to be fast at the start, and then go from there,” Antoine says.
Antoine’s climb up the skeleton ladder was anything but easy. After his first training camp, he was sent home. Told he didn’t have what it took. But he kept at it. Kept developing his sprinting legs. Kept honing his starting skills. After high school, he chose the University of Vermont, and then quickly transferred to Plattsburgh State, which is about a 45-minute drive from Lake Placid, where he would be free to work on his craft on one of the two skeleton tracks in the entire country — the other being in Park City, Utah.
“Once I decide to put my mind to something, I’m pretty persistent,” Antoine says. “If I want something, I go after it. And with skeleton, you have to go get it. Skeleton does not come to you.”
All the work paid off. In the winter of 2003, in his first college semester, Antoine was accepted into the national program, at which point his skeleton stock began to skyrocket. Less than six years later he was the No. 1-ranked American and a favorite to win a medal, perhaps even a gold medal, at the 2010 Winter Games in Whistler, B.C., where he had already won a world cup bronze. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, something changed.
“I think because everything had come so quickly for me, I never had a chance to really think about the level I had put myself at,” Antoine says. “Once I started to think about it, I guess it overwhelmed me a little bit. I started competing not to lose. I lost my confidence. And I ended up not making the Olympic Team in 2010. They took three, and I was No. 4. It was devastating.”
Back In Shape
To even try to compare the adversity a guy like Matt Antoine has faced to what someone like Joe Delagrave has been through, at first glance, would seem utterly foolish. But that’s the thing about Delagrave: he’s an athlete. Always has been. And it was a particular coach who treated him as such — a coach who didn’t handle his emotions with care but instead told him the harsh truth — that ultimately relit the athletic fire that had always burned inside him.
“It felt good for someone to get on my ass again,” Delagrave says. “It made me feel like an athlete again.”
The coach was James Gumbert, the man at the helm of the national wheelchair rugby team. Two years after his accident, Delagrave had discovered wheelchair rugby on the Internet. He wound up joining a club team, the Minnesota North Stars of the United States Quad Rugby Association. His first practice was a shot of adrenaline. The game was fast, violent, and the camaraderie of a team was back in his life. He watched the national team compete at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, and he knew that’s what he wanted to do. He set his sights on 2012 in London. There was, however, one problem.
“After my accident, I still ate like a 19-year-old football player,” he said. “I was up to around 285 pounds, and I remember Coach Gumbert just telling me, basically, that I was too fat, that I was out of shape, and that I would never make the (national) team unless I lost some weight.”
Delagrave laughs as he thinks back.
“That’s the PG version,” he says.
So, long story short, Delagrave started training and eating like an elite athlete should, and he lost about 40 pounds. He trained with the national team through the summer of 2009, but was cut a few months before the American Zone Championships in Argentina. He still had weight to lose. He still had room to grow as a player. So he and his wife, April, decided on a whim to uproot their whole life and move to Phoenix, Arizona, so Delagrave could continue to pursue his dream of playing in the Paralympic Games. He joined the Phoenix Heat club team and began training every day with 2008 Paralympians Nick Springer and Scott Hogsett. He lost another 50 pounds, getting down to 195, but when the time came for the 2009 World Championships, he was cut from the team again.
“I thought that was it, but I kept training, kept my hopes up,” Delagrave said. “And then, in April 2010, Brian Kirkland, one of the best players wheelchair rugby has ever seen, announced his retirement. There was an emergency tryout for Brian’s spot, and I made the team. It was so surreal.”
Delagrave remembers, more than anything, the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. He remembers the stadium being packed with 80,000 people. He remembers seeing the Queen. He remembers, not fondly, losing to Canada by one in the semis before beating Japan for the bronze medal. It will always be a little disappointing to Delagrave that they weren’t able to win gold, but as time has passed, the perspective of what he and his team accomplished, and what they still strive to accomplish in the future, puts him, as always, at peace.
As for Matt Antoine, well, he spent those 2012 Games on the couch watching his former classmate, as proud as can be, all the while quietly hoping that one day it would be his turn. And at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, four long years after the disappointment of not having made it to Vancouver, finally, it was. Back as the No. 1 ranked American, Antoine won his bronze medal.
“I’ve been asked a lot what it’s like to win an Olympic medal, and I probably still don’t have a good answer,” Antoine says. “But I can tell you this, on my final run, I was attacking. I promised myself I wouldn’t hold anything back. It was my dream to win an Olympic medal, and I was going after it.
“Joe and I, we have both worked for everything we’ve accomplished. It’s been inspiring to watch the way he has carried himself through everything. We’ve gone back and forth on social media congratulating each other, and I just think that for two guys who come from where we come from, to do what we’ve been able to do, I think it speaks a lot about the way we were brought up, the hard-working people around us, and the values that were instilled in us. I think there will always be a part of our hometown in both of us.”