Story: Chris Carr | Photos: Loren Worthington
When the SpoFit Phoenix Heat wheelchair rugby team takes the court this Thursday to compete for the national championship, they will do so not only to defend their hard-fought title from last season, but they will also hold what many believe to be a decided advantage against the other seven Division I teams competing for the crown.
Multiple Paralympic athletes fill Phoenix’s current roster, their most recent sectionals tournament in Tucson, Ariz. resulted in a first place finish, and one of their newest athletes – Jim Roberts – is quickly becoming a top talent in the game as a 3.0 player.
To hear Roberts tell the story, however, emerging from Nationals – arguably the most important tournament of the year – with another trophy to add to the team’s already impressive accolades, is anything but guaranteed. He understands, as do his teammates, that all of the intense training and preparation throughout the season culminate in their performance on the court this weekend. And the competition will be stiff.
“We’ve been able to play against pretty much all the top teams that we’re going to face already: Tucson, Texas, Minnesota,” Roberts said in a phone interview. “We know what we’re up against and we know how hard it’s going to be. We just have to not be complacent and [stick to] our roles.”
In only his second season with the Heat, Roberts has been playing wheelchair rugby since 2011. Prior to his current adaptive sports career, Roberts competed for his university’s union rugby team in his native England. While still in college in 2007, he contracted meningitis at the age of 19, and is now a double leg amputee. As a result of this, and what Roberts describes as “some limitations in my hands,” he is classified as a 3.0. That also makes him one of the top-level wheelchair rugby players for Phoenix, in terms of classification.
Roberts certainly views his work on the court – and his training regimen off of it – as a career. To that end, he competes for Phoenix during their club season, and also wears the colors of his home country with the British National squad (Team GB). Add in his work with the London Wheelchair Rugby Club, and there is rarely such thing as an off season in Roberts’ athletic life.
“[The Heat] train three times a week as a team. Then I go in [to SpoFit] anyways three times a week on my own to do weights,” Roberts said.
Such a division of labor – playing for three teams during different times of the year – could stretch other athletes beyond their limits. But Roberts embraces the opportunity to play with so many talented American athletes and says that it is an invaluable experience.
Following the advice of more experienced teammates from Team GB, Roberts decided to test his skills against competition in the United States a couple of years ago. After researching clubs around the country, he landed in Phoenix with the help of Heat team captain Scott Hogsett, and rugby veteran Joe Delagrave.
“Coming to Phoenix was a really good fit. There’s a massive depth of knowledge on the team, and they’ve obviously been very successful in their careers,” Roberts told me. “I honestly think it’s been massively beneficial to me, having been around those that have been able to coach me the last couple of years.”
Phoenix Heat team captain, Scott Hogsett explained that the team took Roberts in without much, if any, prior knowledge about his rugby game. Some would argue that this type of move — training, competing with, and helping to mold an athlete who also plays for another country may provide an edge for Team GB. But Hogsett dismissed that notion.
“People are concerned that helping to develop a player like Jim, and then having him go back home to the U.K. gives them an unfair advantage,” Hogsett told me. “But the style of play between Phoenix and Great Britain is so different that people shouldn’t be concerned with” Roberts splitting time with both teams.
The practice of American club teams welcoming international players to train with them and compete in stateside tournaments is in fact becoming more commonplace in wheelchair rugby. During last year’s Nationals in Lexington, Ky., Leon Jørgensen, a 3.0 standout in his native Denmark, helped Las Vegas to a third-place finish. This year, when Jørgensen competes for Tucson, he will be joined by a bevy of other international stars. A number of teams will boast high-point international talents, including the Seattle Storm’s Daisuke Ikezaki (3.0) of Japan, and the St. Louis Rugby Rams’ Leevi Ylonen (3.0) from Finland.
Still, the Team GB coaches wanted assurance that having one of their high-point players spend months at a time overseas would serve to mutually benefit both Roberts and their national squad in equal measure.
“My GB coaches had questions about how often I’d be able to train, what the facilities would be like, where would I be staying,” Roberts said. “They wanted to know, just to make sure I was keeping up with my programs, and all that kind of thing.”
Once the Team GB coaches learned more about SpoFit, their fears were allayed, according to Roberts. In addition to all of the work he has done to help Phoenix defend their National Championship crown this year, Roberts says that Team GB also sends workout routines for him to complete at SpoFit every month.
Since opening its doors nearly three years ago, the facility has welcomed numerous talented athletes for tournaments and competitions from around the country and the world, including Roberts. Earlier this month, Olympic gold medal swimmer Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, along with Paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell visited SpoFit. Hogsett, Delagrave, and Nick Springer, all Paralympic medalists, train with the Heat throughout the year at SpoFit as well. It is clear that the fitness center has quickly become one of the premiere destinations for high-level athletes with disabilities to advance their skills and compete for the top prizes in numerous sports, from rugby and swimming to power soccer and basketball.
Ultimately, with only four years of playing experience, Roberts is still a relative newcomer to the sport, particularly when reviewing Phoenix’s roster. Delagrave, Hogsett, and Springer have all earned medals at the Paralympic Games for Team U.S.A., and others like Ernie Chun and Joe Jackson are Heat veterans, as well. That is why Roberts feels fortunate to have been given this opportunity over the past two seasons.
“[Delagrave and Hogsett] took a gamble on me because I was a relatively unknown player at that time. It seems to have worked out really, for both of us I think,” Roberts said.
Hogsett said that Roberts has been a beneficial addition to the squad, and that his dedication to the sport is impressive.
“Jim is dedicated to learning, growing, and winning,” Hogsett said. One of the things he has noticed “is that Jim really is using his head” in addition to his physical skills as a high-point player. For Roberts’ classification level, it can be easy to just want to crash through opponents without thinking as much about strategy. “If [Roberts] is playing this way now,” Hogsett said, “it will be fun to see where he is in the sport in a few more years and beyond.”
The Phoenix Heat captured the National Championship in 2014, defeating the Minnesota Steelhead 55-44 in the deciding contest. Roberts was named to the All Tournament Team last year, as well. Most recently, Roberts and Company took the top spot again at the Mountain Sectionals tournament in Tucson earlier this month, beating Texas and three other squads.
This year’s national champion will be determined in Lexington, Ky. starting Thursday. Phoenix enters as the number one overall seed in Division I. Their first contest will be against St. Louis, followed by a game versus the Shepherd Smash of Atlanta, Ga. later in the day. Other Division I teams this year include the Texas Stampede, the Minnesota Steelhead, the Tucson Renegades, the Seattle Slam, and the Grand Rapids Thunder.