Will Groulx: From sailor to rugby star to handcycling champion

By Stuart Lieberman | Aug. 27, 2014, 12 p.m. (ET)
Will Groulx
Will Groulx, a three-time Paralympic medalist in wheelchair rugby, is a cycling hopeful for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Will Groulx grew up in a military family. His father, William, served 24 years in the U.S. Army, so he became accustomed to moving from base to base as a child. 

Thus, it was no surprise to anyone in the Groulx kin when Will decided to join the Navy in 1995. He served as a nuclear-trained electrician on submarines for six years, but toward the end of his service, he injured his spinal cord in a motorcycle accident.

“Being on a submarine, we couldn’t necessarily go to the warehouse to find the spare parts for what was broken,” Groulx said. “We had to learn to adapt, think and be creative to figure out how to make things work. That really helped me after my injury to learn, cope and adapt to life in a wheelchair and all different types of equipment.”

He more than just adapted.

Groulx quickly found himself participating in para-sports on the international stage.

Within two years, he qualified for the U.S. wheelchair rugby national team in time for the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games and went on to hold a nine-year stint on the squad, which included an ESPY nomination in 2009.

This year, the Portland, Oregon, native finds himself adapting once again.

After winning two world and two Paralympic titles in wheelchair rugby, and a bronze medal at the 2012 Paralympic Games, the 40-year-old veteran is trying to solidify himself as a force to be reckoned with on the para-cycling circuit.

With the International Cycling Union Para-cycling Road World Championships taking place from Aug. 28-Sept. 1 in Greenville, South Carolina, an American audience will have the chance to judge the relative newcomer’s progress first-hand. The event will be live streamed on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 at USParalympics.org.

The competition will be Groulx’s second world championships since switching to handcycling after the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

“I had decided I was going to retire from international competition after London,” Groulx said. “The cycling thing, it was just going to be an outlet for me to race domestically.

“But that competitive bug bit.

“I started having some success domestically and then decided to go to my first national competition in Greenville in 2013, and I ended up qualifying for my first international competition in Spain with Team USA.”

Groulx has been coached for the last year and a half by tactical genius Rick Babington, who also coached Megan Fisher to London 2012 gold.

“Will’s brought a lot of high tenacity over from rugby that we don’t often see in handcycling,” Babington said.

“He carried over a huge amount of fitness from wheelchair rugby, which put him right in the mix internationally almost immediately. He was already knocking on the door of the podium right when he started.”

After claiming a silver and bronze medal at the 2013 world championships, he’s poised for his first world title in the sport this month.

Groulx, the only non-European in the top 10 of the men’s H2 world rankings this season, won gold in four of his six world cup races this summer. He finished first in the road race and team relay in Italy, and he won the time trial and road race in Spain.

The United States will send over 45 athletes, including four tandem pilots, to Greenville, making it the largest and most decorated American para-cycling team to ever compete at a world championships.

“We have the ability to medal in every single category that we’re fielding athletes in,” Groulx said.

National stalwarts Jamie Whitmore, a newcomer, and U.S. Paralympians Greta Neimanas and Allison Jones have numerous Paralympic and world titles between them. Throw in Sochi 2014 Paralympians and dual-sport athletes Dan Cnossen and Oksana Masters, and Team USA should certainly give the British and Italian favorites a run for their money.

Groulx’s top opponents in the H2 classification will be Ireland’s Paralympic champion Mark Rohan and Italy’s world champion Luca Mazzone.

“Both of them cycle in Europe where competition is pretty fierce and a different entity,” Groulx said. “In experience, Mark definitely has the advantage. He’s been cycling for a very long time at a high level on the world stage and has won multiple world championships and a Paralympic gold medal.”

But handcycling popularity is on the up in the United States, too.

“Handcycling has been getting bigger and bigger here in the U.S. We’ve seen more athletes coming out for more races,” Groulx said.

“Having a guy like Alex Zanardi — who was a household name already (as an Italian race car driver before he lost his legs as the result of a crash) — and then some crossover athletes like (South African) Ernst Van Dyk, who has won multiple Boston and New York Marathons in the racing chair, have given us great ambassadors from other countries to look up to and have brought great attention to the sport.”

Depending on Groulx’s results and commitments to his four-year-old twins, one last  Paralympic Games could still be on the horizon.

He said he’ll have a better idea after Greenville, but if you ask his coach, the decision’s already been made.

“I don’t see why he wouldn’t be going to Rio 2016,” Babington said.

Stuart Lieberman is a Minneapolis-based writer who covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to USParalympics.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.