U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team will carry the torch to London

By Brian Hightower | July 25, 2012, 2 p.m. (ET)

Joe Delagrave is almost ready for London.

In a month, he’ll double check to make sure he’s packed his suitcase with everything he needs: toothbrush, underwear, gloves, Stick-Um, spare wheels, a welding torch...

Delagrave plays wheelchair rugby, and in September he’ll be among the athletes chosen to represent the US Team as they defend their Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games gold medal.                        

Playing wheelchair rugby is not for the faint of heart.

Hell, watching wheelchair rugby is not for the faint of heart, for that matter.

As a Paralympic sport, it is unique among its peers in that it allows, encourages really, full contact using the wheelchairs. The athletes on the court, all quadriplegics, will often find themselves on the business end of a violent collision, cartwheeling on the ground, possibly upside down.  And loving it.

What’s not to love, after all?  This sport has everything: skill, speed, athleticism, aggression and “A lot of strategy”, says Delagrave.  “You have to think and act fast.”  

Here’s a quick wheelchair rugby primer:


It’s four on four on a basketball court.  Instead of shooting at a hoop at the opposite end to score goals, a player must carry the ball (a volleyball) across the goal line between two cones spaced 8 meters apart. 

Cross the line, score a goal.  Easy enough.

Well, except for the fact that, should you find yourself with the ball, your opposition (a few hundred pounds of man and metal alloy) has every right to knock you into next week using his custom-built wheels of justice, hoping that you’ll:

A) Be separated from the ball
B) Stop your progress toward the above mentioned goal line
C) Suddenly find your head and shoulders on the ground where your wheels used to be

And one can always hope for:

D) All of the above

There are some rules about contact.  For instance, you can’t hit a player from behind.  That’s only fair.  If someone is about to light you up, you should at least be able to see who it is.


Aside from the rules of play, the element of wheelchair rugby that has the most strategic influence is about classification.  Each player is assigned a point value with their disability.  It begins at .5, where an athlete has no hand function and perhaps only a small amount of bicep use in their arms.  The scale jumps by increments of .5 according to the relative function of each players hands, arms and trunk until it reaches 3.5 for the highest functioning players, with complete arm use, full trunk, and ability in both hands.  

Here’s the tricky part:  the combined point value of all four players on the court for a team cannot exceed 8.0.

Strategic dilemmas abound.  This is where the game gets even more interesting than the carnage, and reminds me why I had to take Algebra twice.   

What if you have the world’s best 3.5 like Australia’s Ryley Batt? How long can you afford to keep him on the court?  What if you’ve got Scott Hogsett, a 1 for the US who can hang with 2s and 3s all day? Do you play two 3s and two 1s?  If you try to put a 2.5 and a 3.5 together, you’d better have a couple of awesome .5s.

Luckily, the USA has arguably the best coach in the world, James “Gumbie” Gumbert to make those tough decisions.      

By the way, the reason why the USA is so dominant, according to Delagrave: “Its because of our 2s.  We have six [2s] on our team, and they’re the fastest in the world.”  Delagrave says often the line-up out on the court will be four 2s. 

Naturally, four of a kind always beats two of a kind, two pair, or a straight.     


Quick! Name another sport that has a team welder standing by during competition. These guys punish their equipment even more than they punish each other.

Delagrave explains, “We travel with a guy dedicated to changing flats, spokes, casters or anything that goes wrong, and we also have a welding set-up on site in case a chair were to break.”

These guys play rough.  Delagrave has been through five chairs in five years.  Let’s think about this for a moment.  This means that even a welder could not put his chairs back together again.

Luckily, now uses Vesco Metal Craft, an outfit out of Chula Vista, Calif.  They’ve got most of the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team in their chairs, and claim to have, get this, a retired NASA Space Shuttle welder in their shop.  

No Ordinary Joe

Delagrave started playing wheelchair rugby because he had to do something.  At a critical crossroads that many who are paralyzed have encountered, he wondered if there would ever be a sport that could replace how he used to feel when he competed.

Once a 6’5” college football tight end, Delagrave had bought into the perception that wheelchair sport was not “real” sport, even though he himself was now chair bound.

Then he played wheelchair rugby. 

All it took was one time on the court.

“I was hooked.”

The competitive juices started to flow instantly.  The sweat, the fatigue, the physical nature of the game.  There is only one Paralympic equivalent of someone hitting you like a linebacker during a crossing route, and this was it. 

New goals.  New dreams. Delagrave had a new pursuit to pour his energy into.  Turns out he’s pretty good. As in, 2012 National Player of the Year good, Team USA good, and maybe even gold medal good.     

The U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team is a bonded brotherhood whose lives have been absolutely transformed by the game.  Their dedication to winning is unparalleled, and they’ve got the hardware to prove it.  Delagrave has some heavy hitting mentors.   

Seven of them were part of the team that won in ’08. 

He may not have been on that Beijing team, but Delagrave has watched the gold medal game plenty of times. 

“When I reflect on ’08... seeing the reaction of the players after they won, knowing all of the sacrifices they made...,” he trails off.  It is apparent that he is thinking of his own long road.

Asked what it would feel like to win gold in London:

“It would blow my dreams away.”

Joe Delagrave is almost ready for London.

This week, he’ll will kiss his beautiful wife April (his high school sweetheart), and his 6-month-old boy, Braxton, before departing for Birmingham, Ala.’s Lakeshore Foundation.  There, Team USA will partake in a grueling 10-day training camp, the final one before they begin the defense of their Paralympic gold.

Perhaps when he packs his suitcase for his return to the United States in September, somewhere between the blood and sweat stained jerseys and the welding torch, there will be room for a medal.