UPDATE: On July 24, the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) released the full schedule for the 2012 Paralympic Games. As reported by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), Team USA will face Great Britain in their first contest on September 5, followed by a game against Japan the next day.
Team USA could face the Australians, who are largely considered the second best team in the world, in a crossover game as the competition progresses. View the full schedule from the IWRF here.
By Chris Carr
Less than fifty days remain until the Opening Ceremonies for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London’s Olympic Park and Village. In preparation for what they hope will be a second consecutive gold medal, Team USA wheelchair rugby was in Phoenix over the weekend of July 13, practicing drills and scrimmaging at the Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center for Persons with Disabilities (SpoFit).
Fans packed the stands on Friday night, as local favorites Scott Hogsett, Nick Springer and Joe Delagrave took the court for a public scrimmage, along with fellow Paralympians Andy Cohn (San Diego, CA), Jason Reiger (Centennial, CO) and Will Groulx (Portland, OR). Over the course of three days, Team USA held three practices each day, working on passing and defensive drills and at other times practicing last-second scoring plays.
Two players were notably absent on the court: Chuck Aoki and Derrick Helton, both from Tucson, were unable to play due to injury. Team USA was still able to showcase their chemistry despite missing two key players, and that is in part due to the fact that half of the roster hails from a single state: Arizona.
I asked Nick Springer how much of an advantage playing with so many familiar faces would be in London.
“It’s huge to be able to practice with the guys year-round… You have me, Chance [Sumner], Joe and Scott. We play together year-round, so we know each other very well,” he said. “Also, even though we might be playing against them, we still see these guys [from Tucson] constantly throughout the year. So, we get to know them as much playing against them as we would playing with them.”
Joe Delagrave, who is making his first trip to the Paralympic Games, reiterated this, pointing out the positives of having regular season teammates on this national squad.
“It’s kind of a unique situation. We have half our roster [made up of] guys that you kind of get to train with, play with a lot. I think it’s huge. Because chemistry isn’t something you can develop overnight,” he said. “Being able to have that time together is definitely helpful, especially when it comes to crunch-time.”
As much as team unity will play an important role this September, it’s not lost on the team or it’s coaches that the rest of the world has improved dramatically in wheelchair rugby. Head Coach James Gumbert, who is from Texas, talked about how the international talent level has increased exponentially, even within the past four years.
“We played France in Game 1 [at the Canada Cup], relatively unknown, we had never seen them. They played us to a couple points in the first quarter. And, we had to stop and regroup, come back out and change some things in how we were approaching this team,” he said. “And then there’s Australia [with] the dynamic duo of [Chris] Bond and [Ryley] Batt, so we’re going to have our hands full… [with] training, sport-science, you look at it from around the world, the rest of the world has caught up.”
Jason Reiger, a 0.5 classed defensive specialist who has been playing on the United States national squad since 2005, agrees with his coach. Having played since 1998, Reiger has seen the growth of the game, both domestically and internationally, firsthand.
“The sport is slowly but continually evolving. Other countries are getting better. I anticipate one of the most competitive tournaments that we’ve played,” he said. “I think it’ll be awesome because London is pumped for rugby.”
Due to the reality of better competition, Team USA will have to rely more on the experience of Paralympic veterans, like Reiger and Andy Cohn. For Cohn, he made his first wheelchair rugby national team in 2002, and London will mark his third Paralympics.
“The first one I was actually in, we took a Bronze medal, we won third… It was really disappointing. So, for me, it’s been kind of like an endless motivation to try to erase that as best as possible,” Cohn said. “The best way to do that is by winning Gold medals, as many as I can stick around for.”
Reiger has been on Team USA since 2005. He has a good idea of the expectations some of the rookies will be facing this year, since he was in a similar position four years ago in Beijing.
Speaking about the Paralympic experience, he said, “You never forget that first time, because it’s so new, it’s something you’ve worked all of your athletic career to get there. The second go-around [in London], I think will be special. It’s always unique.”
Once again, it will be difficult for viewers in the United States to find coverage of the Paralympics during the actual Games, starting in late August. A common sentiment among the players and Coach Gumbert when asked how the media can improve its coverage was to simply show games and tournaments on television, and to let the public discover the sport like any other.
Aoki compared the potential of wheelchair rugby to some more well known sports.
“I always say if people like watching track, they’re going to like watching wheelchair track. If you like football, you’re going to like watching rugby. If you like watching hockey, you’re going to like watching rugby,” Aoki said. “Just give us a chance. Put [rugby] on ESPN at two in the morning, and let people watch the Gold medal game.”
Reiger says he plays “the coolest sport nobody has ever seen,” and Coach Gumbert sees a possible opportunity for wheelchair rugby’s further growth right around the corner.
“I had a great analogy that was given to me about where our sport is now. Wheelchair rugby is where women’s soccer was twenty years ago: you heard about it, a little bit of buzz, but it’s waiting for that moment to just jump out at you on the stage,” Coach Gumbert said. “I think we’re close. The one thing that’s unique about our sport is that it seems to change people’s lives one hit at a time… We get ‘em one at a time. And I think we have been successful in doing that.”
Thanks to Coach Gumbert and the rest of Team USA wheelchair rugby for sharing a weekend with their fans at SpoFit in Phoenix. Opening Ceremonies are August 29, and the rugby portion of the Paralympics runs from September 5 to September 9. Team USA’s pool includes France, Great Britain and Japan.