NewsWheelchair Rugby

Player-Turned-Coach Joe Delagrave Led A New Era Of U.S. Wheelchair Rugby To World Silver Medal

by Steve Goldberg

Joe Delagrave coaching during the semifinals against Japan at the 2022 WWR Wheelchair Rugby World Championships on Oct. 15, 2022 in Vejle, Denmark.


The U.S. has built up a strong pedigree in the nearly three decades that wheelchair rugby has been contested on a global level.
Since 1995, if there’s been a Paralympic Games or Wheelchair Rugby World Championship, Team USA has been on the medals podium. No other country can say the same.
Much of that success came under the direction of James “Gumbie” Gumbert, the esteemed coach who retired last year after 16 years guiding the program.
Now, under player-turned-interim head coach Joe Delagrave, that medal streak continues. On Sunday, a veteran U.S. team reached the world championship final in Vejle, Denmark, and ultimately took home the silver medal following a 58-55 loss to Australia.
It’s the second silver medal for the U.S. team in a little over a year, after the group featuring Delagrave as a player also reached the final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 before falling to Great Britain.
A two-time Paralympic medalist, Delagrave is a 13-time national team member and previously served as team captain. When the opportunity arose to coach the team, he decided to take it and retired as a player at age 36.
“I had a little bit left in the tank, but this opportunity was very unique and something that I had thought about for a while,” he told from Vejle, following Sunday’s gold-medal match. “My wife was on board, and the kids were on board, and they were here this week in Denmark, which was awesome.”
The bonds between teammates, especially those that have grown over time and multiple tournaments together, and the player-coach interactions, are necessarily different. To migrate from one dynamic to another takes understanding and acceptance from both sides.
“The hardest part, to be honest, is that the relationships are different,” Delagrave said. “I’m not hanging out with the players nonstop. Some of the relationships are a decade and a half old, so those are meaningful relationships in my life, but while I’m the coach, it’s going to be different around each other and you need those boundaries in order to succeed.”
Most importantly, he said that the players have bought in, not just with the new coach/player relationship but also with taking the team in a new direction.
“Some of it was easy,” he said. “With the transition, we were excited for the opportunities and change. There was a great buy-in as far as strategy goes and learning a new offensive system, strategies and what-not.”
As for viewing the games from the sidelines and not getting to hit anyone with his chair anymore, Delagrave said it was a positive experience.
He misses the contact nature of the game but added, “I’ve matured enough to where I really enjoy this role. I take my competitiveness seriously as a coach though. I really enjoy the chess match of being on the sidelines. Sometimes it’s a bit more nerve-wracking since you’re not out there playing and doing.”

Joe Delagrave coaching during the group play match against Switzerland at the 2022 WWR Wheelchair Rugby World Championships on Oct. 13, 2022 in Vejle, Denmark.


The squad featured four new players on the 12-person roster from Tokyo, including its first female world championship team members, Sarah Adam and Liz Dunn. Dunn was an alternate for the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team. Jake Daily and Josh O’Neill were the other newcomers.
The sport, which is officially co-ed, has long featured primarily male athletes. That’s beginning to change. Delagrave said there were 13 female athletes on the rosters at the world championship.
The women contributed in big ways, too. Adam was Team USA’s leading scorer in a group stage game and took home Player of the Game honors.
“It’s good for the sport,” Delagrave said. “They add value to a lot of the lineups out there.”
The Americans faced spirited opposition throughout the tournament. They came back from a loss to France in group play to close out strong, including a win over Great Britain. Then they defeated Canada and top-ranked Japan in the knockout round to reach the final.
“You get into a gold-medal match in year one and you want to win it,” Delagrave said. “It’s disappointing, but at the same time, we’re excited about what we can do and moving forward.”
With such a short time on the job though, Delagrave is pragmatic.
“I don’t think we overachieved. I think we were capable of winning the tournament,” he said. “I’m pleased with where we are at, just having 11 months of being the coach and implementing some new things. Coach Gumbie was around for a long time and was very successful, but any coaching change is going to take a few years to implement and get used to our offensive system and what we like to do. Our mantra is ‘trust the process.’” 
Even if the U.S. didn’t win, the team reached the world championship final for the first time since 2010.
“I’m proud of everyone,” Delagrave said. “It’s a huge accomplishment in and of itself. We’re a team that’s on the upward swing and excited about what we can do over the next 22 months heading into Paris.”
The U.S. placed three players on the tournament all-star team: Lee Fredette, Josh Wheeler and Chuck Aoki.
Delagrave doesn’t shy away from being asked if he wants to lose the interim tag, saying, “I’m proud of the year we’ve had. We have a lot to build on.”
“Our leadership is great. Lakeshore Foundation, which is our NGB, is phenomenal and we’ve got great support. We’re in a good place moving into 2024 and the long strategic plan of LA28.”

The chief press officer for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, Steve Goldberg covered every summer Paralympic Games from Sydney 2000 through Rio 2016 for various newspapers, magazines and online media. He is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.