Kevin Hamilton Adjusts to Life As Newest Wheelchair Rugby National Team Member

By Melissa Zhang | Feb. 26, 2019, 6 p.m. (ET)

Kevin Hamilton fist bumping a teammate after a wheelchair rugby competition.
20-year Kevin Hamilton earned his spot on the 2019 USA Wheelchair Rugby Training Squad last January after a four-day tryout camp.

When Joe Delagrave, captain of the U.S. men’s wheelchair rugby national team, helped run a development camp in the suburbs of Illinois, little did he know that one of the young players going through his drills that day would soon become his teammate.

Twenty-year-old Kevin Hamilton was one of 37 athletes at a four-day tryout camp in Colorado Springs last January.

The roster was announced on the final day, and Hamilton found that he’d earned a spot on the 2019 USAWR Training Squad, alongside Delagrave.

“Every feeling was going through my head — it was like I was feeling every emotion at once,” Hamilton said. “I had a blank face because I was so happy, but it was also really daunting of a task. But it’s everything I had dreamed of; I didn't have this crazy expressive face but I was definitely feeling it on the inside.”

The Arlington Heights, Illinois native, who has Transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, has never let his disability stop him from embracing athletic pursuits.

Hamilton started out playing wheelchair basketball but was introduced to rugby as a junior in high school.

It didn’t take long for him to fall in love with the sport.

“I went to one practice and I was hooked,” he said.

He said he quickly became a fan of the game for its fast-paced nature and more physical aspects of the sport.

“Everything is just fast. You can't take a second for a break…and then the much more obvious thing is the physical combat nature of the sport,” he said. “When I started the sport, I was pretty good at it and thought, you know, I should work at this.”

Hamilton currently plays for the Chicago Bears, a team in the United States Quad Rugby Association. He credits his coach Mike Klonowski and former teammate Dan Sauber as two of his biggest mentors.

Hamilton also named Delagrave, who is a Paralympian and in his fifth year on the national team, as a major source of guidance and support in his wheelchair rugby career.

“(Delagrave) has helped me a lot to get better at rugby in my career,” Hamilton said. “It's awesome to now be his teammate and not be someone just getting taught by him. He'll still be teaching me though.”

Just a few years later after he first began playing, Hamilton found himself competing for a chance to play at the national level.

“There was a lot of testing to see where we were at physically and how we compared to other people in our classification level,” he said. “It was really, really hard. Seven and a half hours of rugby a day is not easy.”

His work paid off, however.

Hamilton will now don a red, white and blue jersey and compete alongside some of the best rugby players in the nation.

“Life looks a little different now — for starters, I'm going to have to plan my meals a little more, eat a little better,” he laughed.

Life as a 20-year old college student poses its own challenges as well.

As a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Hamilton also has to dedicate time to his studies. He has not yet declared his college major but is interested in potentially studying broadcast journalism.

Hamilton also plays for the university’s wheelchair basketball team. He said that juggling academics, collegiate athletics and wheelchair rugby has left him with little free time.

“Obviously there's a lot of time commitments between the three,” he said. “I didn't have a lot of free time before (I made the national team), but now I'm not going to have any time at all. I just have to focus on what I'm doing.”

He said the plan is to continue playing college basketball for now but may reevaluate and make a decision at the end of the basketball season.

The challenges of balancing so many commitments doesn’t scare Hamilton, however.

“As they say, with great sacrifice comes great reward,” he said. “I'd love that great reward of potentially going to one of those international tournaments and winning gold.”

The team will meet for a training camp in April before competing against Great Britain, Australia and Japan at the Four Nations Invitational in May. The invitational will be Hamilton’s first competition representing Team USA.

For someone who was just picking up the game a few years ago, the new national team member has already proven his tremendous potential within the sport. But when asked about his goals for the future, Hamilton remained grounded and humble.   

“I don't want to get too dreamy. Right now, my main goal is to become a better rugby player and help my team in whatever way I can,” he said. “I don't know how long I'm going to be at this elite level, but I hope to make it as long as I can.”