The USA celebrate their gold medal at the Mens Wheelchair Rugby Gold Medal Ceremony during the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000 on Oct. 29, 2000 in Sydney.
After 20 years, some of the exact details of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team’s gold medal win at the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000 are a bit fuzzy in Bryan Kirkland’s mind.
He remembers the big stuff, though.
Such as scoring on a breakaway for what would be not only the very last goal of the game for the U.S. but also the winning goal in a hotly contested 32-31 victory over Australia.
And what happened next.
“You’re just celebrating, you don’t know who to hug first, you’re just rolling around hugging everybody,” said Kirkland, of Oneonta, Alabama. “For me, the pressure was that I didn’t want to be the team that was going to be the first one to lose at that level. I was like, ‘There ain’t no way in hell we’re going to lose. We’re going to keep the streaks going.’ Because you’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing your team, your family and friends and your town and all the people who supported you to get to that level, and you’re representing your country.”
Wheelchair rugby was an exhibition sport at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, but it made its official debut in Sydney. The pressure was on for the U.S., which not only won in 1996 by a score of 37-30 over Canada but also at the first two world championships in 1995 and 1998.
They were the team to beat.
The U.S. went undefeated in the three-game preliminary round, including a 29-27 win over Australia that was their only real test until facing rival Canada in the semifinals. Despite some controversy surrounding classifications of Canada’s players, the U.S. won 40-35 to set up the final match against Australia.
It was their first time facing the team in the gold medal match of a major international tournament, but it wasn’t to be the last.
Kirkland remembers the crowds.
“From the time we rolled out onto the court it was just, you couldn’t hear each other it was so loud,” he said. “You really relied on eye contact and knowing your teammates and really trusting each other. I mean, you could feel the crowd yelling. It was that loud. So every timeout, halftime, between quarters, you’re huddling up just trying to hear each other. It was crazy. It was phenomenal.”
Those Games sparked what would become a competitive rivalry with Australia that developed through the decade until they met in a rematch in 2008 in Beijing, where the U.S. once again had the upper hand and won its second gold medal by a score of 53-44.
In both 2004 and 2012 the U.S. was forced to settle for bronze, but then they faced Australia again in the final match at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. In what was immediately called one of the best wheelchair rugby matches of all time, Australia beat the U.S. in double overtime, 59-58.
Jeff Underwood is president of the Lakeshore Foundation, the Birmingham, Alabama-based home of USA Wheelchair Rugby. He believes the inclusion of the sport in 2000 helped influence not only other nations but individuals in the U.S. as well.
“Certainly the competitiveness of wheelchair rugby demonstrated that putting it on the regular (Paralympic) program was the right thing to do, and I think it motivated the development of the sport,” he said. “Those countries that were there probably went back after those Games and put a lot more time and resources into growing the sport. One of the consequences — in a positive way — was that there were probably some individuals who were looking for their route to becoming an elite athlete and engaging in sport and gaining all the benefits that sport brings to you across your life, and because of the growth of rugby it opened up opportunities for people who may have not found a home in the Paralympic Movement.”
Kirkland retired in 2010 at the age of 39, then came back two years ago and continues to compete at the high club level. He is the only one left from the 2000 team still active in the sport.
He still remembers getting back to the Athlete’s Village in 2000 and being congratulated and high-fived by the other athletes.
“You’re on such a big high, I mean, you just won the gold medal and it was televised in their country,” he said. “I think 17 million people watched it live. We played at the end of the Paralympics, the Closing Ceremony was that night, but the next day my wife and two other couples went on vacation around Sydney and up north and everywhere we went people were recognizing us. Even though we beat their team they were still fantastic people, spirited people, and it was just phenomenal rolling around like a rock star. Like a big celebrity, signing autographs and taking pictures. It was great.”