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Eric Newby, U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team Seeks Paris 2024 Berth With Win In Santiago

by Bob Reinert

Eric Newby in action during a recent USA Wheelchair Rugby practice. (Photo by USAWR)

Ask Eric Newby how wheelchair rugby has evolved during his decade with the U.S. national team, and he won’t mince words in describing today’s game.

“It’s grown a lot, and it’s turned the sport into a fast-paced demolition derby,” said the 35-year-old U.S. team co-captain from Nashville, Illinois, “and it’s really fun.”

The rough-and-tumble nature of the sport is on full display now at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023. The young American team — ranked No. 1 in the world — began preliminary round play Saturday with a 62-27 victory over host Chile. Newby scored six tries in the opener.

The squad played Argentina on Saturday, No. 10 Colombia on Sunday, 11th-ranked Brazil on Monday and No. 5 Canada on Tuesday. The semifinals and gold medal games take place Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

“We’ve got to really be on our game,” Newby said.

Despite their top ranking and runner-up finish at last year’s world championships, the defending champion Americans were taking nothing for granted at the Parapan Ams.

“Being such a new team, we kind of ditched all expectations because we really didn’t know how the year was going to go,” Newby said. “And being on top, we don’t really talk about it. We don’t even think about it. We just know that we have a job to do, and we’re here to finish that job.

“We have four seasoned veterans and then a lot of newer players. But with that said, we’ve got a lot of great talent, and I genuinely believe we can win. I think we’re going to win.”

Newby said the Americans quickly have become a close-knit group on and off the court.

“It’s been a really good team vibe, a good team chemistry year,” he said. “It’s almost like a family already. It’s been really great.”

While Parapan Ams gold is the goal, a championship carries extra significance as it’d also come with a berth to the Paralympic Games Paris 2024. Newby, a Paralympic silver medalist in 2016 and 2021, pointed out that the Americans were just in Paris for the International Wheelchair Rugby World Cup won by Australia. Team USA took sixth place.

Eric Newby competes against Argentina in the preliminary rounds during the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 19, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Mark Reis)

“It was really exciting to be there and just see it all a year out, and I can’t wait to see what they do in the next year,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an incredible Games. Europe always draws a huge crowd for wheelchair rugby, and they really do enjoy the sport over there.”

The Paralympic Games Paris 2024 will probably be Newby’s last.

“I’ve got two young kids at home,” he said. “Every time I travel, it gets a little bit harder and harder to get away from them. I’m a very intelligent player, and I’d like to transition into some type of coaching role.

“It’s definitely driving me to do everything a little bit harder and a little bit more intentional this year, that’s for sure.”

Newby, who broke his neck in a traffic accident on his high school graduation night in 2006, got into wheelchair rugby soon after leaving the rehabilitation facility. He has been with the national team since 2013.

“I looked up to all the guys that had been around forever, and I’d been watching them play for years,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like I’ve been around that long, and how that has shifted very quickly to being one of the old veterans. It’s kind of surreal to realize that I’m one of the old guys now.

“It’s actually taken a huge shift recently. After Tokyo, we had pretty much an entire staff change. We took a lot of youth. We took two 16-year-olds this year, which was crazy. The team has definitely changed.”

According to Newby, the Americans are playing a much different game now than when he got started. He added that the addition of players with many different disabilities and the implementation of a 40-second shot clock have changed wheelchair rugby for the better.

“Now the sport has opened up to a bunch of different disabilities, and it’s brought in a lot of very dynamic players,” Newby said. “The speed of the game has changed tremendously.

“You used to be able to inbound and waste minutes and minutes and minutes of time. So, the pace of the game has changed tremendously. It’s made it a bit more exciting for fans, that’s for sure. You really have to be a top-of-the-line, elite athlete to play now.”