Meet the 12 Tokyo-Bound Athletes On The U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team
By Todd Kortemeier |
May 24, 2021, 10 a.m. (ET)
Now that its 12-player roster is complete, the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team has just one thing to focus on: Getting back on top of the medal stand.
Team USA has the most wheelchair rugby gold medals since the sport’s Paralympic debut in 1996, but is seeking its first championship since the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008. Athletes have had to wait even longer for their shot at that gold medal with the postponement of the Tokyo Games, but reconvened this past week for a team selection camp at the Lakeshore Foundation Olympic & Paralympic Training site in Birmingham, Alabama. Sixteen athletes competed for a spot on the team, with 12 chosen for the Paralympic roster and four selected as alternates.
“When the Games were postponed last March, we made a promise to each other that we would finish what we started, and we aim to do just that,” said USA Wheelchair Rugby High Performance Manager Mandy Goff in a news release. “Over the last 14 months we have gone through a lot together and I think that, in addition to their hard work and dedication, it’s going to be what propels us to the top of the podium.”
Here’s a closer look at the 12 Tokyo-bound athletes seeking to restore gold-medal status for Team USA. Numbers in parentheses are the athlete’s classification; classification ranges from 0.5 to 3.5 representing lower to higher levels of functional ability. Four players are on the court at a time and their classifications added together must not total more than 8.0.
One of the most experienced members of Team USA, Aoki has two Paralympic medals to his name and has competed in three world championships. Aoki helped Team USA to the world championship in 2010 and bronze medals in 2014 and 2018. The 30-year-old from Minneapolis has been a frequent blogger for TeamUSA.org, offering a window into the life of a Paralympian.
Butler has been playing wheelchair rugby since the age of 13, and first made the national team after graduating from college in 2014. By 2016, Butler made his international debut and won the silver medal with Team USA in Rio. He also won a bronze medal at the world championships in 2018. After Tokyo, the 30-year-old from Fort Wayne, Indiana, plans to pursue his MBA at Stanford.
A veteran of two Paralympic Games and three world championships along with Chuck Aoki, Cohn is another of the team’s most experienced players. A native of Tucson, Arizona, the 37-year-old is an avid gardener when not on the court.
Delagrave will return to the Paralympic Team for the second time after the disappointment of missing out in 2016. The 36-year-old from Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, rededicated himself to being a team leader and better teammate and will be one of the players to count on in Tokyo.
The 2005 documentary film “Murderball” greatly raised the profile of wheelchair rugby around the world, and had a direct impact on Lee Fredette. Fredette was inspired to take up the sport after watching the film during his recovery from a dirt bike accident that left him paralyzed as a college freshman. The 38-year-old from East Moriches, New York, made his Paralympic debut in 2016.
A Marine Corps veteran, Hennagir previously competed in wheelchair basketball in the Wounded Warrior Regiment at the Warrior Games from 2010 to 2015. The 34-year-old from Deptford, New Jersey, has since picked up wheelchair rugby and competed with Team USA at the 2019 Parapan American Games. Tokyo will be his first Paralympic Games.
Count Jackson as another player drawn to wheelchair rugby from “Murderball.” Jackson fell in love with the sport and has since made it his mission to help others discover it as well. The Joe Jackson Foundation helps provide wheelchairs to those who cannot afford them. One of the team’s vocal leaders, the 31-year-old from Maricopa, Arizona, will be competing at his first Games.
Melton, 42, has been playing wheelchair rugby since 2008 and made his first national team since 2012, but didn’t get his first chance at the Paralympic Games since 2016. After helping Team USA win silver, the native of Richview, Illinois, will be back for more hoping to secure gold.
Newby discovered wheelchair rugby in 2006 and tried out for the national team for the first time in 2009. Newby got cut, but dedicated himself to improving and by 2013, not only made the team but was U.S. Quad Rugby Association Player of the Year. The 33-year-old from Godfrey, Illinois, made his Paralympic debut in 2016.
10. Kory Puderbaugh (3.0)
One of the younger members on the team at 25, Puderbaugh made his Paralympic debut at the Rio Games. Born in Poland, Puderbaugh discovered wheelchair rugby in Boise, Idaho, where he played for the Boise Bombers.
A former high school quarterback, Scaturro was drawn to wheelchair rugby because of its physical contact. At 42, Scaturro has absorbed a lot of hits in his career, including at Paralympic Games in 2012 and 2016. Scaturro, of Lakewood, Colorado, has competed on the Denver Harlequins team that has included Chuck Aoki and Eric Newby.
Wheeler discovered wheelchair rugby in 2006 soon after a car accident that damaged his spinal cord. Wheeler first tried out for the national team in 2009, finally becoming an alternate in 2013 and becoming a mainstay ever since. The 41-year-old from Tucson, Arizona, played with Team USA in Rio.
Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.