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Paralympian Chuck Aoki Reflects On The Challenges Of 2020 Through His Emotions

By Chuck Aoki | Dec. 30, 2020, 12:58 p.m. (ET)

Chuck Aoki poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 19, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

I have always prided myself on being a patient person. Growing up with a disability means you learn that patience starts within oneself. When you have to wait for your body to catch up to what your heart and soul are desperate to do, there is simply nothing to do besides granting yourself patience. 

2020, however, has tested my patience more than ever before. This was supposed to be the year we went to Tokyo. The year I finally brought home a gold medal. 

All the life experience in the world cannot prepare you for being told the thing you’ve waited four years to do isn’t going to happen just yet. That you’ll have to be patient and wait. 

Again.  

This year has been filled with numerous emotions. These emotions have gotten jumbled together, making it hard to always understand what I’m feeling at times. 

I’ve found it useful to break down my emotions and consider how each of them impacts me differently. This can be a challenging and revealing process that requires being vulnerable with myself, which isn’t always easy. 

Below are some of the emotions I have had this year and how I’ve tried to deal with them. Like everyone else, it has been a learning process that continues still today.  

Helplessness
Elite level athletes aren’t used to feeling helpless. 

The whole point of putting all your energy and focus into your sport is to prepare for any situation. Nothing should surprise me or catch me off guard. I always fear not being quite ready enough for competition, and it is one thing that drives me every day. 

This year, however, I felt helplessness like I haven’t felt in years. The Paralympics being delayed left me feeling aimless. Seemingly being unable to do anything to help combat the pandemic left me feeling completely powerless. 

These were not new emotions for me, which was a mixed blessing. Much of my time growing up, and today at times, I felt helpless to my disability. I felt powerless to do anything to change my circumstances. 

I had to learn how to seek out control in unexpected places. I learned to embrace these small moments as ways of taking my power back and then found joy in them. This experience is what I have leaned on throughout 2020. 

Need to wear a mask? I got one so I could represent my favorite NFL team (Vikings!). 

Stuck at home? Focus on little tasks around the house that lighten up your spirit. 

It isn’t always easy to get started on this process. But once you do, it’s like a snowball rolling downhill. 

Sadness
2020 has been a year of grief. While I am fortunate to have not lost anyone close to me, the feeling of collective grief has been present through most of this year. We’ve all lost something, whether it’s tangible or not, and these losses have added up. 

For some, it’s been small things lost, over and over. For others, it’s been tragedies striking. Sadness and grief have been unavoidable this year. Coping with and accepting these emotions has been a major part of my year. 

My life has brought me plenty of sad moments, from the pain of being told I couldn’t play sports anymore, to losing gold medal matches in the final moments. Grief is one of the most challenging emotions to deal with, and I don’t presume to be able to tell anyone how to process it.

All I can say is that for me, the process of allowing myself to feel sad and accepting my grief as legitimate is always my first step. Too often we tell ourselves, men in particular, that it’s not acceptable to be sad or to cry. 

We think that we must always remain tough and stoic despite any emotion we are feeling. This is fundamentally unhealthy. 

I sincerely hope one thing we can all take from this year is that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s part of being human.    

Apathy
Every athlete fears losing their drive to be successful. The work that goes into being a successful Olympian or Paralympian requires the ability to push yourself beyond what you thought possible and to find motivation despite any obstacle. 

At times this year, apathy won. 

Training for the Paralympics simply paled in comparison to a global pandemic raging and long-simmering tensions boiling over in our country. How could I spend any of my energy or focus on something that seemed so trivial? 

The answer is not a simple one. I found that I had to compartmentalize my energy. I focused on specific tasks throughout the day, taking things once piece at a time. 

Just as I train one part of my body at a time or work through a list of daily tasks, overcoming the apathy brought on by 2020 meant breaking things down into small, manageable chunks that I could deal with one by one. 

Anticipation
The final emotion this year has brought on is anticipation. I am sure we all have that first thing we cannot wait to do once it is safe again. 

For me, it’s that first hit. I can’t wait for the first time my chair crashes into one of my teammates, sending one (or both!) of us flying. 

Having to spend months apart from my team for the first time in over a decade has left me eager for those small moments that are so meaningful – the jokes we tell before practice while listening to our playlist with music that ranges from Blackpink to AC/DC. I can’t wait to sit in our dorm rooms yelling at each other through the bathroom wall while we decompress from a long day of beating each other up. 

This anticipation is part of what helps overcome all of these other emotions. Having that excitement race through me when I think about the first time I see the court and my teammates again. 

Thoughts about the future always help us keep our focus during challenging times, and this year is certainly no different in that regard. What is different this year, however, is how cathartic those first moments will feel. 

Anticipation feels different this year. It’s hard not to feel like we are all in this together. We aren’t just anticipating and dreaming for ourselves, but for each other as well. 

And now we’re almost there. We won’t have to wait much longer. 

Chuck Aoki

Chuck Aoki is a two-time Paralympic medalist in the sport of wheelchair rugby and Minnesota native. He has used a wheelchair for most of his life due to a genetic condition called hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathies type II, which results in him not having feeling in his body below the knees and elbows. Chuck is a captain of the wheelchair rugby national team and hopes to lead the team to their elusive gold medal this summer at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021.

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