Top 13 of 2013: U.S. wheelchair rugby regains No. 1 spot

By Caryn Maconi | Dec. 21, 2013, 10 a.m. (ET)
2013 Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Challenge
Team USA won the Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Challenge, regaining the No. 1 world ranking with the victory.

It was a thrilling year for the Paralympic Movement in the United States and around the globe. Records were broken and legacies were made. From Dec. 18-30, will unveil the Top 13 moments of 2013 for U.S. Paralympics in chronological order.

The USA Wheelchair Rugby Team climbed to the top of the world rankings on June 19 with a win over then No. 1 Australia at the Denmark Wheelchair Rugby Challenge, the first major wheelchair rugby event since the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Team USA was ranked No. 1 worldwide from 2006 until the London 2012 Paralympic Games semi-final, in which the team lost to Canada 50-49. Team USA went on to earn bronze while Australia and Canada took gold and silver, respectively.

“We thought we were as prepared as we could be going into the Games, and we had one really bad quarter out of the whole tournament and never recovered fully from it,” said USA Wheelchair Rugby Head Coach James Gumbert. “We, as a team, couldn’t get back on the court quick enough to try and redeem ourselves.”

Team USA, ranked No. 3 worldwide after London, had its shot at redemption in Odense, Demark, in the gold-medal match against top ranked Australia.

“We were just trying to repair the feeling of loss after London,” said Joe Delagrave, U.S. team captain. “Our expectations with the program are that we always want to be No. 1 and be at that gold-medal standard. We knew we had enough talent to do it – it was just a matter of believing in one another to get back to it.”

Team USA had beaten Australia a month before the London Games at the Canada Cup, but hadn’t gotten a chance to face the powerhouse Aussies in London.

Furthermore, the U.S. team headed to Demark was not the same group that competed in London.

“We looked at our depth and our roster and decided that we would kind of start over again, for lack of a better word,” Gumbert said. “We brought seven guys that had no Paralympic or world championship experience that hadn’t been tested on the international stage. From a coaching side, we just wanted to go out and play like a team and play together.”

The odds may have been stacked against the young group, but play together they did. It was a close battle for the first half of the match, as the score after the second period was 30-30.

But the U.S. captured the momentum and began to pull away, gaining a 45-41 lead over Australia by the end of the third period. Team USA kept fighting hard, ending the match with a 61-56 victory.

“In the third and fourth quarters, we could see that a lot of the things we’d been working on and the tactics we’d been putting in the guys’ heads were taking hold,” Gumbert said. “Everybody knew that they could come back at any moment, so we were happy to get that win and we didn’t take it for granted until the very end.”

Delagrave described the gold-medal moment as one of the most memorable of his rugby career to date.

“Getting back to No. 1 really meant a lot, just in keeping up with teams from the past and the history of the program,” Delagrave said. “That win was not just for us as a team, but for the program in general.”

With the win, Team USA was No. 1 again. It would stay that way for the rest of the season, as the U.S. went on to win gold medals at the Tri-Nations Series in Australia and the Americas Championship in Birmingham, Alabama.

The secret weapon of the 2012-13 U.S. team, Gumbert said, wasn’t necessarily speed or technical skill.

“Each other. Their biggest strength was each other,” Gumbert said. “There was no drama. Everybody kind of kicked their personalities at the door, and when you came through you realized you were going to give a little bit of who you were to get something bigger. I mean, it was truly special. For me in my years of coaching, it was one of the most memorable teams I’ve ever been a part of. This team made coaching rugby fun again.”

On Dec. 8, USA Wheelchair Rugby nominated its 16-man roster for the 2014 world championships, which includes 10 athletes from the 2013 squad and four members of the gold-medal-winning Beijing 2008 Paralympic Team.

Gumbert said he doesn’t plan to lose the bond shared by that memorable 2013 team.

“With so much youth and so much chemistry, it was a very, very special team,” Gumbert said. “Once you find it, you get greedy about it, and we’re being very greedy about the chemistry that we have.”

USA Wheelchair Rugby announced a new partnership with its able-bodied counterpart USA Rugby in November. The Birmingham, Ala., based wheelchair program program also works closely with the Lakeshore Foundation, a nonprofit organization that serves people with physical disabilities throughout Alabama and the United States.