BY STUART LIEBERMAN – From Teamusa.org
Chuck Aoki won his first career gold medal at the 2010 IWRF World Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Vancouver, B.C., where the youngster served as a role player in his international debut, clocking sporadic minutes in Team USA’s title run.
But when Aoki, now 23, hit the court at this year’s world championships, which began Monday in Odense, Denmark, he was the American anchor and one of the best on the global stage.
With four world titles, the Americans have won every edition of the world championships with the exception of 2002, but will play Sunday for the bronze medal against Japan. Team USA lost to Canada 59-56 in overtime in the semifinals.
The team was also third at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, beating Japan.
Aoki is just one of the new stars on a revamped U.S. lineup that looks to help Team USA regain No. 1 status at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Since the last world championships, Joe Delagrave, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound former football player at Winona State University in Minnesota, has transformed from a 12th man benchwarmer to the team’s captain.
Derrick Helton, now a six-year veteran and a new father, has slowly cemented himself as one of the better 2.0 players in the world.
Add in speedy newcomers Jeremy Brown and Eric Newby, along with Aoki’s aggressive rise to the top of the scoring charts, and it’s no wonder the Americans might be thought of as favorites on the Road to Rio.
There’s one team in particular, though, that could pose a major roadblock in Team USA’s path: The reigning Paralympic champions and world silver medalists.
“Australia is a team that’s phenomenal,” Aoki, a member of Team USA’s bronze-medal team at the 2012 Paralympic Games, said. “They beat us last year, giving us one of the worst losses we’ve ever had.”
The Aussies, who did not play the United States in pool play, will have arguably the best wheelchair rugby player in the world on their side, Ryley Batt, as they go for their first world title against Canada.
“Ryley is more of a power player,” Aoki said. “He’s unbelievably fast. He can blow by double teams and triple teams all game long.
“Physically, he’s so dominant. He’s a big guy who sits up tall in his chair, and I’m kind of a smaller guy who’s hunched over, so I get knocked around all the time. I have to be a little more decisive and cerebral in my game plan, whereas he can just blow by guys.”
Aoki and Batt are both known for small talk, but don’t expect either to greet his opponent with open arms over the next two years.
“We’re not going to go to dinner with Team Germany to have a five-hour meal or anything, but it’s all friendly, and we’re all part of a larger wheelchair rugby community in the world,” Aoki, a Minneapolis native, said.
At suppertime, the Americans will stick to their own table, whispering ways of how they can live up to large expectations to improve on bronze medal game showings.
“As a team, we’re trying to fuel that pressure into confidence,” Aoki said before the world championships. “We’re the best team in the rankings at No. 1 in the world, so I think we need to go out there and prove it.”
As Team USA continuously tries to prove its ranking, USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville said his organization is striving to keep the wheelchair program one step ahead of other nations.
This includes the development of a new logo, as well as measures to increase attendance at events, enhance recruitment and expand administrative support.
“We need more people to see the game and get a chance to watch it live,” Melville said. “We will increase visibility, and as a result more eyeballs on the game will bring benefits and support. It won’t happen overnight, but we have had a positive response so far from our community.”
While there is no confirmed transfer of governance for the wheelchair rugby program in the future — the relationship will be evaluated in November to determine the next steps — the squad will lead into 2015 with new international invitations.
Thanks to their new partnership (see sidebar), the wheelchair rugby team will compete at the Parapan American Games in Toronto, followed by the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge in London’s Queen Elizabeth Park in conjunction with the IRB World Championships.
“For the first time, both platforms will be seen side-by-side and will do amazing things for the rugby community,” USA Wheelchair Program Manager Mandy Goff 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 TeamUSA.orgon behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.