Charles Aoki celebrates with his teammate after winning the semifinal match against Colombia at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 26, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
USA Wheelchair Rugby captains Chuck Aoki and Joe Delagrave are always excited to share their sport with new fans.
Team USA is currently competing in Tuesday’s gold-medal match of the Parapan American Games Lima 2019, and the match can be watched at TeamUSA.org/live. A win would book the U.S. its spot at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. A win would also mark the squad’s first gold medal at the event after earning silver at the sport’s Parapan American Games debut in 2015.
The sport – which is a mixed-gender sport – made its Paralympic debut at the Sydney 2000 Games, but it’s still a relatively new and growing sport.
From cross-training to classifications, here are five things the team captains want everyone to know about wheelchair rugby:
1) It Is Incredibly Physical – And Sometimes Violent
Not only does wheelchair rugby combine elements of rugby with basketball, ice hockey and volleyball, but it can also be more violent than some of those sports. The sport was, after all, originally known as murderball.
Anyone watching a game will quickly notice the mayhem caused on the court and the players ramming into one another.
“[Wheelchair rugby is] the only full-contact chair sport in the Paralympics; I think that’s very unique,” Delagrave, a 2012 Paralympic bronze medalist, said.
It’s not abnormal to see a player get knocked over or injured from a brutal fall in wheelchair rugby.
“You can smash into people, you can knock people around, you can go flying, bodies go flying,” said Aoki, a two-time Paralympic medalist. “There’s no other sport really in the world quite like that; it’s an able-body workout.”
“But you’re not supposed to be able to physically contact with people,” Aoki said. “However, I’ve had a lot of bruises on my arms and on obviously my face sometimes that indicate that the game is not called as tightly, so it gets very physical both chair and body-to-body, but that’s why we love it.”
2) Classification And Strategy Are Important
As with all Paralympic sports, there is a classification system in wheelchair rugby, which ensures competitive equality and consistency on the court.
“I mean once you get past the smashing and the chairs crashing, and the people tipping over, there’s actually a lot of strategy behind it,” Aoki said. “It’s high-speed bumper cars, it’s high-speed chess, we actually like to say.”
There are seven classes total that players are assessed into: 0.5 points, 1 point, 1.5 points, 2.0 points, 2.5 points, 3.0 points and 3.5 points. The more functional mobility range a player has, the higher their point class.
In wheelchair rugby, only four players per team are allowed on the court at any given time, with the total points of those players on the court not exceeding 8.
Therefore, there can be matchups created between opposing players and strategies developed to best take advantage of who’s on the court while staying within the limits.
“They’ll see like Chuck Aoki or Ray [Hennagir] or some of the other guys in the world flying around [and think], ‘Wow, they’re way faster than this guy,’ but they don’t realize the different levels of physical ability,” Delagrave said.
“So, it’s kind of unique to see that .5 or that 1.0 play way above his class, and he ends up becoming that hidden MVP of the team, where he doesn’t get all the glory but usually is winning the game for his team,” Delagrave said.
3) The Professionalism And Competition Has Improved
Over the years, Aoki and Delagrave have witnessed wheelchair rugby develop and progress.
According to Aoki, the overall professionalism of the sport has improved since it was inducted into the Paralympic Games 19 years ago.
“When [wheelchair rugby] first started back in the day, it was for fun, it was recreational and there’s still a lot of space for that,” Aoki said. “But now, at the highest level, this is a full-time gig for everybody. … And so, I think the professionalism of wheelchair rugby and all Paralympic sport in general has really seen change.”
International wheelchair rugby currently includes zone championships for each region in the world, world championships and is part of regional Games like the Parapan American Games. The sport is played in more than 40 countries, according to its international governing body, the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation.
With such progress and more nations competing comes better competition. While the U.S. boasts an impressive team, ranking No. 2 in the world, the competition Team USA faces has become more challenging.
“The biggest change in the sport is just everyone in the world has gotten better,” Delagrave said. “So, there’s five to six teams that could go and win gold in Tokyo.”
“[Wheelchair rugby is] definitely different than what it used to be,” Delagrave said.