Each month, Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team won Team of the Month for August 2019 after going undefeated at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 and earning a spot at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. In the team’s Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, a player and coach talk about the team’s newfound emphasis on rest and recovery.
Training is a critical piece to any athlete or team’s success, but in recent years more and more emphasis has turned to the importance of rest and recovery as an equally key component.
Count the U.S. wheelchair rugby team among those that now emphasize recovery as part of their overall preparation for performing at the highest level, even if it took some convincing.
“I would say that some athletes have a little bit of a hard time believing that recovery makes that big a difference, so it took a little time to bring some people around,” assistant coach Sue Tucker said. “And it’s not even from the athletes’ standpoint; it’s kind of getting even some of the staff to believe that we don’t have to push at 100 percent and practice three times a day for multiple days to get the results, that we need to physically train less to get more.
“It’s one of those things that’s sometimes a little challenging to get people to buy into until you actually do it and they see the results. Then they buy into it.”
Recovery has been an emphasis of the team since winning the silver medal at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, and the results indicate the program is on the right track.
Most recently the team fought through a grueling schedule at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 in August, playing five games in three days in the round robin and seven games in five days overall. The U.S. went undefeated, beat Canada for the gold medal and qualified for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The dominant performance in Lima, in which the U.S. outscored opponents by scores the likes of 60-16 and 48-7, later led to the team being selected Team of the Month in the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s Best of August awards.
The condensed schedule would be a tough grind for anyone, let alone athletes in the physically demanding, sometimes brutal sport of wheelchair rugby. They named the 2005 documentary about the U.S. and Canadian national teams leading up to the 2004 Paralympic Games “Murderball” for a reason.
For a long time, however, rest, nutrition and recovery weren’t part of the team’s priorities, and the team’s priorities didn’t seem to need tinkering when for many years the U.S. could routinely count on beating opponents by 20 points or more.
In recent years a number of other countries have caught up, however, with at least five teams now capable of winning gold on any given day.
Tucker remembers a few years back when the idea that the team was perhaps working too hard began to sink in.
USA Wheelchair Rugby posing for a photo following their gold-medal win against Canada at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 27, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
“We went to Colorado Springs and we had a day where we had three training sessions scheduled in one day,” she said. “There were some staff and some athletes there from other sports, able-bodied sports, and I think wheelchair basketball as well, and they were shocked that we had three training sessions set up that day. That was during the time of trying to get people to transition their thinking away from more training is better, so it was kind of an interesting thing to hear and see.”
Fast forward to 2019, and recovery has become so important that when the team is at a tournament it’s a focus of their scheduling.
“We have a pregame warmup and meeting and that’s priority No. 1, but then everything else is scheduled around recovery,” Tucker said. “If we want to add a meeting we think about OK, if we play at this time and don’t play until the next day at 1, or whatever, how can we maximize recovery and nutrition for our athletes? So we don’t want to schedule meetings during the time when we want them to be eating or resting. In the past it was all about scheduling for the game and the training sessions and the meetings, and there was probably some thought given to sleep and food, but now it’s been a shift and I think we’re seeing some of the benefits of that shift.”
Science and technology also now play a big part in the athletes’ recovery.
One of the tools that the athletes use as part of their daily routines is NormaTec air compression sleeves.
“A lot of able-bodied athletes use them on their legs,” said Jeff Butler, who was part of the silver-medal team in 2016. “They make an upper body set that we use. We have two or three sets, and every evening the text messages go out, ‘NormaTec is open, get in line,’ because we all love it.”
Immediately after using it there’s a release in the muscles, Butler said, and the next day they aren’t nearly as sore as they would normally be without using the technology.
Another tool everyone’s bought into fairly recently, Butler said, is a system called Crossover Symmetry that was initially designed to help baseball pitchers. It’s a resistance band system with a very specific protocol that athletes use to strengthen their back and shoulder muscles and promote good shoulder health.
“For a Para athlete the No. 1 most important thing to do is to keep the shoulders healthy,” Butler said. “Our strength coach brought the system to us in 2017, and it took a while to buy in but now we’re all drinking the Kool-Aid. We each have our own system, and it’s just a part of what you do now and you do it every day. If we’re at training camp or in a hotel we hang it on the door in our rooms and do it. That, plus NormaTec, plus a really good, strong emphasis on recovery has been the biggest change since Rio.”
The U.S. didn’t qualify for Rio until three months before the Opening Ceremony. Clinching their spot with 11 months left before the 2020 Games was the players’ top priority this year.
“We relied on our training, relied on our strength and conditioning and relied on the work we put in throughout the year to come in and execute knowing there was one qualifying spot on the line,” Butler said. “It was special. That was our big goal and we did that.”