Meet the 360Heat teammates training for Japan Paralympics
Story by Matt Lively
Photos by Matt Lively
As Americans watched the 2018 Winter Olympics, it was hard not get excited over the women’s ice hockey win over Canada in a shootout, or the curlers who dominated a sport unfamiliar to most.
It’s easy to cheer when your team wins on the highest stage in the world. It’s tougher when you’re the one trying to reach it.
Ernie Chun, 36, and Joe Jackson, 28, know how hard it is to reach that stage. The pair of 360Heat wheelchair rugby players are on a mission to make Team USA for the 2020 Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo. Both made the 2018 USA Training squad, allowing them to train and compete with Team USA throughout the year.
Chun, a Hawaii native, was paralyzed in a surfing accident at age 14. He bounced around from marathon racing to tennis before finding his true sports passion nearly 10 years later.
“When I was in college, I actually saw a trailer for Murderball,” he said. “After the movie, I said, ‘I have to try that sport’.”
During a tennis tournament, fellow players convinced him to give wheelchair rugby a try. After a month more of tennis competition, Chun returned home, packed his bags and moved to Tennessee to play for a Division 2 wheelchair rugby team. A cross-country move he feared to tell his mom about.
“I told my mom through an email because I was afraid to call her at a tournament,” he said.
Joe Jackson broke his C-6 vertebrate on a botched tackle during a scrimmage at Hamilton High School. He came to Ability360 to rebuild himself.
He gained a peer mentor in Scott Hogsett, the coach of the 360Heat and star of the documentary Murderball. Hogsett showed him the movie during a mentoring session and Jackson was hooked.
“I thought, ‘I gotta do this’,” Jackson said. “This is fast, this is contact. It’s pretty similar to football, I still get to hit.”
Jackson joined the 360Heat and continued to improve over the next eight years. He tried out for Team USA 2016, but hurt his shoulder on the second day of tryouts, ending his chances.
“When I didn’t get the spot, I was like ‘oh well’,” he said. “‘Next year’, and next year, I made it.”
Chun trained for the 2016 USA team, but was ultimately cut. After the rejection, he said something clicked; it made him stronger and allowed him to develop his own style for the game.
“It was tough. That whole summer I did not get in my rugby chair, I was a little down,” Chun said after learning he missed the team. “Like anyone trying to go for an Olympic sport or a Paralympic sport, it’s four years of your life dedicated, and then not making it is pretty tough.”
The two have a close bond. Off the court, they battle in video games; Jackson usually wins. On the court, the two are synced together on a conquest for Japan.
They have a shared goal and a shared dream: Win gold on the highest stage in the world.
Matt Lively is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Originally from South Florida, he has lived in the Valley for three years. His first love is sports and aspires to be a sports broadcaster and story teller in the future.