The U.S. wheelchair rugby team has plenty of reason to celebrate.
Team USA defeated Canada in the gold-medal match at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 by a score of 58-47. Not only did the U.S. earn top honors, but the team also punched its ticket for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Co-captain Chuck Aoki led Team USA with 18 tries in the game.
“I think our offense was incredibly clean and composed, and we really worked well as a team together,” the two-time Paralympic medalist said. “Our defense was stifling from the get-go. We had a really strong plan, we wanted to attack them and come right after them. Top to bottom, every single player played incredible. I’m so proud of the guys.”
That effort was palpable from the start, as Team USA had control for the vast majority of the game. The squad came out with a 14-12 lead at the end of the first quarter and only widened the gap as time elapsed. The U.S. went into halftime with a nine-point lead, which had spread to 11 by the end of the third quarter.
“Guys came out with energy and passion and a desire to win and to be the better team on the court, and it showed,” Aoki said. “We forced several turnovers and our offense was clicking just because of the hard work out there.”
Joshua Wheeler also propelled the team with 14 tries, the second most after Aoki. The match marked the most tries netted by the U.S. since the first game of the tournament, a 60-16 win over Chile. It was also the most points allowed by Canada throughout the Games.
Co-captain Joe Delagrave beamed with pride as he talked about what the win meant for the team on a larger scale.
“Honestly, we’ve been through a lot together as a team. There’s a core group of guys that have been around since 2009. Our last big victory in a major Games was 2010 at world championships,” Delagrave said. “We’ve done a lot of winning at other tournaments and been ranked high, but being able to do this now, when it mattered, was great. And it was great practice for moving forward to Tokyo 2020.”
Delagrave played for Team USA at the Paralympic Games London 2012 but narrowly missed the cut for Rio in 2016. With the upcoming Paralympic Games just under one year away, the weight of his leadership role is not lost on him.
“For the coaching staff to trust me as a leader and trust my play on the court as well is really special to me,” Delagrave said. “I don’t take these type of wins for granted. ... It’s really special to be able to do this with the guys and see some new guys come in and experience it.”
For a legend like Aoki, Tokyo offers the opportunity to put a bow on his Paralympic career.
“I got a bronze medal in London, a silver in Rio and now I’m ramping up for the perfect ending with a gold in Tokyo,” Aoki said.
While the players are embracing the victory, they know there is room to improve. Aoki played the entire 32 minutes of the game, and, while he showed the stamina to continue to play at a high level, it isn’t ideal for the team to put that much weight on someone consistently going forward.
But the things that worked well for this team won’t be going away anytime soon. What sets them apart is their bond, and how this connection plays out on the court.
“We care about each other and we love each other. We want to win the right way. I think it makes it that much more special,” Delagrave said. “I think if we’re that loose during Tokyo, we’re going to do something special there.”
The U.S. will look to earn its first Paralympic gold medal in 12 years.
But first, the U.S. wheelchair rugby team will prepare for the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge 2019, which begins on Oct. 16. But, for now, it’s time for a little bit of celebration.
“We’re going to take a little time off here and enjoy this, but then it’s right back at it,” Delagrave said. “Less than 365 days to go, so we’re excited.”