Joe Delagrave coaching during the semifinals against Japan at the 2022 WWR Wheelchair Rugby World Championships on Oct. 15, 2022 in Vejle, Denmark.
The U.S. has built up a strong pedigree in the nearly three decades that wheelchair rugby has been contested on a global level.
Since 1995, if there’s been a Paralympic Games or Wheelchair Rugby World Championship, Team USA has been on the medals podium. No other country can say the same.
Much of that success came under the direction of James “Gumbie” Gumbert, the esteemed coach who retired last year after 16 years guiding the program.
Now, under player-turned-interim head coach Joe Delagrave, that medal streak continues. On Sunday, a veteran U.S. team reached the world championship final in Vejle, Denmark, and ultimately took home the silver medal following a 58-55 loss to Australia.
It’s the second silver medal for the U.S. team in a little over a year, after the group featuring Delagrave as a player also reached the final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 before falling to Great Britain.
A two-time Paralympic medalist, Delagrave is a 13-time national team member and previously served as team captain. When the opportunity arose to coach the team, he decided to take it and retired as a player at age 36.
“I had a little bit left in the tank, but this opportunity was very unique and something that I had thought about for a while,” he told TeamUSA.org from Vejle, following Sunday’s gold-medal match. “My wife was on board, and the kids were on board, and they were here this week in Denmark, which was awesome.”
The bonds between teammates, especially those that have grown over time and multiple tournaments together, and the player-coach interactions, are necessarily different. To migrate from one dynamic to another takes understanding and acceptance from both sides.
“The hardest part, to be honest, is that the relationships are different,” Delagrave said. “I’m not hanging out with the players nonstop. Some of the relationships are a decade and a half old, so those are meaningful relationships in my life, but while I’m the coach, it’s going to be different around each other and you need those boundaries in order to succeed.”
Most importantly, he said that the players have bought in, not just with the new coach/player relationship but also with taking the team in a new direction.
“Some of it was easy,” he said. “With the transition, we were excited for the opportunities and change. There was a great buy-in as far as strategy goes and learning a new offensive system, strategies and what-not.”
As for viewing the games from the sidelines and not getting to hit anyone with his chair anymore, Delagrave said it was a positive experience.
He misses the contact nature of the game but added, “I’ve matured enough to where I really enjoy this role. I take my competitiveness seriously as a coach though. I really enjoy the chess match of being on the sidelines. Sometimes it’s a bit more nerve-wracking since you’re not out there playing and doing.”