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U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Tops New Zealand 63-35 In Their First 2020 Paralympic Match

by Lisa Costantini

Tainafi Lefono battles for possession with Chuck Melton on day 1 of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. 

 

TOKYO — Twelve hours ago, the U.S. wheelchair rugby team was at the Opening Ceremony, celebrating the start of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Their teammate, three-time Paralympian Chuck Aoki was asked to perform “one of the greatest honors” of his life, a flag bearer for Team USA — alongside paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell. His team showed up in full support.

But you wouldn’t know the team was up late by the way they played today. 

The Americans had something to prove matched up against New Zealand in the first game in the pool phase. Losing the gold medal match in Rio to Australia in double overtime by one point, they are looking to reclaim that top spot on the podium.

 

 

Legendary U.S. coach for the past 17 years, James Gumbert, discussed their plans to bounce back from that Rio matchup, also known as “the greatest game of wheelchair rugby ever played.”
“I realized that was the best game ever played, and we were in it. It went back and forth and there were only four turnovers in the game,” Gumbert said. “We think about that every day, and say, ‘okay, how do we get better from that?’”

Better is what they have become known for. Team USA has the most gold medals of any country — five in total — since the sport made its Paralympic debut in the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000. But they have not secured another victory since 2008 in Beijing. 

New Zealand, on the other hand, has also felt victory — winning gold in Athens 2004 and an additional two bronze. But unable to qualify for the last two Games, this was a matchup a long time in the making. And with both teams out of practice thanks to COVID-19, it was anyone’s guess as to who would come out on top.

“I really believe that the team we’ve brought here is capable of golden moments,” Gumbert predicted. “The hard part for every team here is just the consistency, because of the time off.  We are sharp, [and] I feel very confident about our ability to go out and play with anybody in this tournament.”

The Americans entered the game with three of their top four scorers from 2016 —Aoki, Josh Wheeler and Kory Puderbaugh — but it was Joe Delagrave, making his first Paralympic team since London, who scored the first try in Tokyo. 

“It’s been a while,” the 2012 bronze medalist said about playing in his first Games in nine years. “It’s been an emotional week just being here. It was emotional every step of the way.”

With the Second Gentleman of the United States Doug Emhoff in the audience, the U.S. continued to keep the pressure on the Wheel Blacks after the first try and never let up — keeping the spread wide throughout the four quarters.

Second Gentleman of the United States Douglas Emhoff during a wheelchair rugby match between the United States and New Zealand at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 25, 2021 in Tokyo. 

 

Also in the stands were Japanese schoolchildren, who were socially distanced around Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Stadium. The students were allowed in as spectators as a way to educate them about people with disabilities.

The second try was scored by Aoki and by the middle of the second quarter, the U.S. had a 10-point lead that just kept getting larger as the minutes ticked away. 

Up 29-17 with New Zealand out of player timeouts by the half, when the final buzzer sounded the score was 63-35. The U.S. was one step closer to besting their silver medal from Rio.

Team USA is in Group B, which also includes Great Britain and Canada, who they will play next.

“We play five days in a row, which is kind of crazy for sports, right?” Delagrave said about their hectic playing schedule. “So we have this mentality of no days off, every day matters.”

Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo-2020-Paralympic-Games to view the medal table and results.

Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2011.
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