The U.S. wheelchair rugby team has found itself in an unusual spot just five months out from a Paralympic Games.
It has yet to qualify, leaving an air of uncertainty.
Having failed to stamp its ticket to the Rio 2016 Games thus far, the U.S. team will begin play in the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation Paralympic Qualifier Tournament on Monday in Paris, where the top two finishers among the six participating countries will book the final two spots in September’s Paralympic tournament.
For the veterans on the U.S. team, the only way they’ve known to qualify for the Paralympic Games is by winning world championship gold; such was the case leading up to the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games.
But in 2014, the country that’s historically been the most successful in international wheelchair rugby fell short of a third consecutive world title. Instead, Team USA left with the bronze, its lowest finish at a world championship since the tournament began in 1995.
Team USA faced another setback last August, failing at another chance at Rio 2016 qualification when it narrowly lost to Canada in the gold-medal contest at the Parapan American Games in Toronto.
The tournament in Paris is now its last chance.
“It’s a brand new type of spot for us to be in, but at the same time, we’ve also taken a huge step forward in October by beating (reigning world champions) Australia,” said Paralympic bronze medalist and Joe Delagrave.
“After losses like that in Toronto, you have to find the silver lining, because there’s nothing else to do. I think it’s one of those things where the U.S. has always had success, but at the same time the players that are here now, including myself, we have to earn that success on the court and beat Canada and beat any team that we play.”
While world No. 1 Canada — having already qualified for the Paralympic Games — won’t be in Paris, the U.S. team will still face five feisty squads in Denmark, Finland, France, Germany and New Zealand.
The United States is historically the most successful wheelchair rugby team in the world, having won medals in all four Paralympic tournaments it has competed in, including two golds.
Now No. 2 in the IWRF world rankings — five spots ahead of Denmark, its toughest competition at the Qualification Tournament — the U.S. team is hoping the depth it has always been known for comes to fruition in Paris.
“Being the No. 2 team in the world speaks for itself,” Delagrave said. “But I still feel like we need to come together as a team, and this is the perfect tournament to do so. We don’t take any other teams for granted or take anyone lightly.
“In 2012, every player on that team from one to 12 was extremely experienced and had been playing for a few years. I was more of a rookie on that team. With this team, we have some newer guys who haven’t had as much experience, but at the same time all the guys are hungry for success and can add to our team as a whole.”
Not only is Delagrave considered a veteran on the team this time around, but he now also has three young children back home in Phoenix.
The former Winona State college football player and his wife, April, are constantly busy chasing around their two boys, 4-year-old Braxton and 2-year-old Brayden, and their new 6-month-old baby girl, Brynley.
But it allows Delagrave, one of five children himself, to live in two dream worlds at once. Some days, he brings his two boys to the gym to work out with him or watch him train for Rio, and other days he sits with them at home watching the “Rio” animated movie.
“It’s completely different dealing with grown men than toddlers, but it’s definitely taught me patience,” Delagrave said. “It’s definitely apples and oranges, and that’s the nice thing about it. I do have my family, my wife and three kids, and they’re my No. 1 priority. But it’s nice to go to rugby camps and tournaments and know that it’s a family atmosphere, too.”
Delagrave said his teammates have helped him become a better father, including Chuck Melton, Adam Scaturro and Rob Deller, who have three teenagers, a 10-year-old son and two step children, respectively.
And slowly, his oldest, Braxton, is starting to understand what he does for a living.
“Braxton will look at an American flag and say ‘Oh, a rugby flag,’ because he sees the flag on all of my uniforms and shirts,” Delagrave chuckled. “But I have to tell him, ‘No, that’s actually the American flag.’”
Either way, Delagrave is hoping the red, white and blue are raised in the rafters in Paris.
And ideally, in Rio, too.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.