TOKYO (AP) – US captain Joe Delagrave has been asked to explain wheelchair rugby. He knew he was not politically correct about it – he didn’t want to be – after the United States beat Australia 49-42 to reach the gold medal final on Sunday of the Games Paralympics against Great Britain.
Anyone who has seen the famous 2005 documentary film “Murderball” knows the sport: a constant chaos that distracts attention from the fact that these athletes have spinal cord injuries, are missing arms and legs, and ‘They’re strapped into wheelchairs that look like bumper cars.
“It literally breaks stereotypes,” Delagrave said. “I always joke that it’s like crippled people crash into each other and try to make themselves even more crippled. I know it’s not a PC or whatever. “
Delagrave broke his neck 17 years ago in a boat accident on the Mississippi River. The boat he was in hit the bottom of the river, he said. He was knocked back, hitting his head and breaking his neck.
“The beautiful thing about this sport is that it’s rehabilitative,” Delagrave said. “You bring someone new to this sport who has broken their neck or had an amputation. Sport changes their lives to be able to be husband, wife, whatever title in their life.”
The victory was sweet for the Americans over the reigning two-time Paralympic champions. Five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Australia beat the United States 59-58 in two overtime in the gold medal game.
The United States won gold in 2000 in Sydney and in 2008 in Beijing.
Britain beat Japan 55-49 in the other semi-final on Saturday at Yoyogi National Stadium, the architectural gem of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the swimming site where American swimmer Don Schollander won four medals Golden.
The rules of wheelchair rugby are basic, the pace is fast, and there aren’t many stoppages on the basketball court. Chairs are often knocked over and strapped players watch their spinning wheels; or worse, with the chair above them.
Four players pass, occasionally dribble and run up and down on the hardwood, smashing against each other. The goal is to carry the red and white ball – the size of a volleyball ball – across a goal line at each end. Players cannot come into physical contact with an opponent’s body, but almost everything else is allowed.
A foul saves a player’s time in the “bin of sins”, leaving the opposition to play with a male advantage. The constant action makes it easy to forget that the protagonists have a disability.
Like many players, Delagrave credits “Murderball” for his awareness of sport and disability.
“This movie, while at times brash, really helped change our minds about Paralympic sports,” he said. “We’re a group or guys or girls with disabilities, but we’re athletes first – athletes first, disabilities second. We come to play hard like everyone else.
Delagrave is described as the “heart and soul” of the team, and it’s Chuck Aoki who is probably the star. He scored 27 tries against Australia, beating Australian Ryley Batt’s 25. The trials are each worth one point.
Ditto for Aoki and “Murderball”.
“This is how I discovered the sport,” he said. “It really redefined what people with disabilities can do. It showed that we weren’t just people who stayed home and felt sorry for ourselves. We were active, we were alive, we were cool and we were fools sometimes, we were just people with flaws and strengths.
Aoki said he was born with a rare genetic condition that left him with no sensation in his arms or legs.
“A lot of people with disabilities are told not to do things – they can’t do this, they can’t do that. I think sport gives people that feeling of competitive advantage back and you feel alive doing it. There is nothing like it.
Aoki is working on a doctorate. in International Relations and Comparative Politics at the University of Denver. His thesis focuses on the intersection of technology and democracy.
And now the most difficult question of all: when will he finish his thesis?
“Well, good question,” he replied. “After that at some point.”
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