What To Know About Wheelchair Rugby Heading Into Tokyo
by Steve Goldberg
Chuck Aoki competing during the Wheelchair Rugby Semi-Final match between United States and Canada at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on September 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Since its introduction at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games as a demonstration sport, wheelchair rugby has proven to be one of the most popular team competitions at the Games — a combination of football, basketball and demolition derby.
Simply put, it’s a collision sport.
Originally called “Murderball” and made famous by the 2005 documentary of the same name, wheelchair rugby was invented in Canada in 1977 and is now overseen by the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation.
As we wait for the start of this year’s wheelchair rugby tournament on Wednesday in Tokyo, here’s some background to help get you prepared.
Recent History: USA v AUS
The tournament at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Stadium will mark the seventh edition of wheelchair rugby at the Paralympics. Of the six prior Paralympic competitions, including the Atlanta exhibition, the Americans have won half but not since Beijing 2008. Rio was particularly disappointing as the Americans fell to Australia 59-58 in double overtime in the gold-medal final.
Tied at 49 at the end of regulation, Team USA led by one in the first overtime until Australia scored with less than two seconds remaining. The Aussies then took a one-goal lead in the second OT and held off the Americans, who were within inches of tying it up before the match ended.
It marked the first time that the U.S. lost the last game of the tournament, having won bronze medals at Athens 2004 and London 2012.
The U.S. leads the official Paralympic medal count with five medals — two gold, one silver and two bronze.
Only Australia (2012, 2016) and New Zealand (2004) have also won gold medals. Australia is also second on the total medal table with four, having also won two silver medals.
Don’t sleep on Canada, though. It’s the only team other than the U.S. to reach the final four at every previous Paralympics. The Canadians have three silver medals and one bronze (including 1996) but are still seeking their first gold medal.
The Coach Says
“This team is one of the most driven and focused I have ever worked with and their desire to finish what they started is inspiring.” — U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Coach James Gumbert.
Crash Or Be Crashed
It’s most definitely a sport with attitude. One of the first things you see on the World Wheelchair Rugby federation website is the quote, “We aren’t here to inspire. We’re here to win.” They further describe the game as “an invasion and evasion sport with the object being to carry the ball across the opposing team’s try line.”
For this to count, one of the four players on the court must get at least two wheels of the chair across the line while being in control of the ball, which includes being held in their lap.
From when a team gains control of the ball, it has just 40 seconds to score a try before relinquishing possession. Players can pass or roll the ball in any direction, but kicking it is not allowed. Players must dribble or pass the ball to another player at least once every 10 seconds, making time management an important tactical aspect.
At the same time, the other team will be trying to separate them from the ball by reaching in or crashing in at terminal velocity. And that’s where the fun begins.
Who To Watch
The Americans return with three of their top four scorers from 2016 in Chuck Aoki, Josh Wheeler and Kory Puderbaugh. Aoki is also one of the most experienced U.S. players with two Paralympic medals as well as three world championships medals to his name.
Other players to watch include Canada’s Zak Madell, who led all scorers in Rio, and Australia’s Ryley Batt, who is considered by many to be the best player currently in the game.
Good To Know
Although men have historically made up most of the Paralympic rosters, it’s actually a co-ed competition. Japan’s Kae Kurahashi will be the one of two females rostered to compete in Tokyo. She helped Japan win gold at the 2018 world championships. Great Britain’s Kylie Grimes will also compete in Tokyo after also competing on GB’s 2012 team in London. They were nearly joined by Team USA’s Liz Dunn, who was named as an alternate to the American team.
The Medal Mix
Australia comes into Tokyo as the two-time defending gold medalists, although the Aussies fell to Japan in the final of the most recent world championships in 2018. At that tournament, Team USA defeated Great Britain for the bronze medal. Those four countries, along with fellow stalwart Canada, should all be in the mix for podium spots again in Tokyo.
Japan is definitely a team on the rise over the past decade, having finished fourth at the 2012 Olympics before winning a bronze medal in Rio and then the 2018 world title. With home-court advantage in Tokyo, can Japan take the next step and win Paralympic gold?
How To Watch
All of the U.S. preliminary round games will air on NBCSN. In addition, each U.S. game will be presented live on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. Peacock will feature medal-round action in multiple sports, including wheelchair basketball. All Peacock coverage will also air on television.
Here is the tentative TV schedule (All times EDT and subject to change):
Tuesday Aug. 24 (10:30pm-12:00am)
Preliminaries – USA vs New Zealand (LIVE) - NBCSN
Wednesday Aug. 25 (10:30pm-12:00am)
Preliminaries – USA vs Canada (LIVE) - NBCSN
Friday Aug. 27 (4:30am-6:00am)
Preliminaries – USA vs Great Britain (LIVE) - NBCSN