Joel Wilmoth (Hueytown, Ala.) never thought he’d see the day when he’d be excited to get into a wheelchair to play sports. Now just three years after being introduced to the sport of wheelchair rugby, Wilmoth is on his way to Beijing, China and the 2008 Paralympic Games. At the tender age of 19 years old, he is one of the youngest athletes ever to be named to a U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team and his excitement is nearly uncontainable.
“I can’t believe that this has become a reality. I wake-up everyday and I’m living my dream, playing a sport I love and having the opportunity to represent my country,” said Wilmoth. “Just a few years ago, I’d never even heard of this sport, let alone played competitive wheelchair rugby. I wasn’t too thrilled about the whole idea of a wheelchair at first, but once I got out on the court and started hitting people, I was sold!”
Wilmoth was born without hands and feet and on a daily basis uses prosthetics to get around. While looking for a place to workout, he discovered that Lakeshore Foundation, an organization that offers sports and recreation programs for people with physical disabilities and an official U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site, was right in his backyard. Shortly after he started working out at Lakeshore Foundation, Wilmoth was approached by a member of Lakeshore’s club wheelchair rugby team about playing the sport.
“I’ve always played sports with my friends in my neighborhood and love contact sports, like football,” said Wilmoth. “That’s what sucked me into wheelchair rugby right away – the contact. The game is so intense and so physical. I’m just in awe of my teammates and how hard they work, which pushes me to work that much harder.”
Wilmoth’s work-ethic and drive to be the best at his sport have clearly carried him far in a short period of time and U.S. team head coach James “Gumbie” Gumbert (Austin, Texas) says that’s not just a benefit to Wilmoth, but to the sport as a whole.
“Joel has helped elevate the level of play in our sport and he’s showing the other countries what the U.S. is going to have in store for them in the years to come,” said Gumbert. “He puts his entire heart and soul into bettering himself as an athlete and his exuberance and determination are a huge asset to this team. Not to mention, he’s a pretty darn good rugby player.”
But, Wilmoth will tell you he wouldn’t be in this place – on the verge of competing on the world’s biggest stage and gunning for a gold medal – without the support of his coaches and his teammates.
“I have the most incredible teammates in the world,” said Wilmoth. “These guys have really taken me in and I learn so much from them every time we have the chance to practice together. I wouldn’t be even half the rugby player I am today without them and without the guidance and direction I’ve had from both Coach Gumbie and Kevin Orr, my coach with the Lakeshore Demolition.”
The wheelchair rugby competition at the 2008 Paralympic Games begins on Friday, September 12. The U.S. is currently the number one ranked team in the world and is looking to improve on its bronze medal performance at the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece.