Joe Delagrave competes at the Paralympic Games London 2012 on Sept. 7, 2012 in London.
Four years ago at this time, Joe Delagrave recalls huddling around his laptop with his wife April in their condo’s kitchen to watch the wheelchair rugby gold-medal match at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016. He was overtly emotional as the U.S. squad entered double overtime more than 6,000 miles away.
It was the first time in eight years he was not a member of the U.S. national team on the international stage. He had been part of the final cut for the Paralympic squad, despite being the team’s captain each of the three seasons prior.
"It was devastating. I fully thought I’d make it and I think a lot of people did,” Delagrave said. “Throughout that game, I was toying with if they win, do I then feel left out? If they lose, am I devastated? At the end, when they lost, I remember crying because those were my brothers.”
He’s reflected a lot on that moment this month — a month he had expected to be in Tokyo, back on the Paralympic wheelchair rugby court for the first time in eight years.
“When you’re used to traveling, being gone and training with your teammates in certain environment, it’s more than just the postponement of the Games — there’s an identity crisis in a way,” he said. “Dealing with what I went through in 2016 has been really helpful now having to deal with this.”
Delagrave, who began his athletic career as a football player at Winona State University in Minnesota before suffering a spinal-cord injury from a boating accident in 2004, has been playing wheelchair rugby for more than a decade. He was a part of the U.S. team that won bronze at the London 2012 Games after a crushing loss to Canada in the semifinals. Mentally, he was all-in for Rio 2016, believing that a gold medal there would finally justify everything — his accident, his time spent away from his wife and kids, his holding off on starting a career path off the court.
It would validate it all.
So when he failed to make the Rio 2016 team, he blamed himself, and blamed himself hard. He specifically acknowledged that he had been a “selfish leader” as opposed to a “servant leader” as the team’s captain.
Delagrave did a lot of soul searching in 2016, a year in which he also lost his father. He wanted to model his leadership qualities after legendary NFL coach Tony Dungy and set a good example for his three children, Braxton (8), Brayden (6) and Brynley (4). He was determined to return to the court to finish his career on his own terms, deciding to open up and become more vulnerable with his teammates.
“I was thinking of ways I could be a better leader, a better athlete, and help the team,” he said. “I was thinking about the foundation we could build more as opposed to the medal or trophy we could win every four years.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Listen to me because I’m the captain.’ But, ‘Listen to me because I care about you’ is different. In a leadership role, it’s tough to get people to buy in if you don’t care about them. So I wanted to learn more about my teammates — who they are as men and women — and from there build this foundation.”
Athletes across all sports are now facing identity crises and mental health challenges, given the uncertainty of sports, but Delagrave’s past hurdles have come in handy, helping him
cope with what the pandemic has thrown his way and helping him ease the pain for his teammates, too.
"We’ll Rocky Balboa this bad boy and figure out some way to train and continue because we were all in the ramp up for the Paralympics — that was me for the first couple of weeks,” he said. “Then after the postponement, I realized I needed to recalibrate and pause.”
During the quarantine, Delagrave started hosting “Captain’s Chat” sessions twice weekly on USA Wheelchair Rugby’s Facebook page, inviting different teammates to share their lives off the court and how they impact their respective communities for the better. He’s made a point to be there for his squad, and to educate, highlight and humanize those athletes he usually zooms around the court with instead of on the computer.
It’s the first time since 2007 he’s truly taken a pause from the sport, but in a way, he’s never been more involved.