Chuck AokiWheelchair RugbyNews

Passion And Guts: Chuck Aoki's World of Wheelchair Rugby

by Brian Pinelli

Chuck Aoki poses with his ticket to the Paralympic Games Paris 2024 after winning the gold-medal game at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 23, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Mark Reis)

U.S. wheelchair rugby co-captain Chuck Aoki is on a mission to help bring home a gold medal from the Paralympic Games Paris 2024, while equally motivated to inspire adaptive athletes and persons of disability.

Aoki was inspired himself after seeing the acclaimed 2005 sports documentary Murderball, which provides a no holds barred, behind-the-scenes glimpse of American quad rugby players and their daily struggles, as they prepare for the Paralympics Athens 2004.

“I was 15, 16 years old and had been dealing with health challenges and when I saw this movie, which was hard-hitting and physical about wheelchair users, I was like ‘Oh, my gosh, this is it, this is what I want to do, it looks amazing, so fun, and so exhilarating,’” Aoki tells Team USA.

“The movie drew me in and then the first practice hooked me instantly – the physicality, the contact, getting beat up,” he says, half-jokingly. “I had this feeling I could actually be pretty good at this.”  

His intuition was correct. Now, as a three-time Paralympian more than 15 years later, the 33-year-old Aoki still powers himself swiftly around the court, knocking and crashing into opponents as one of the fiercest competitors in the game. He is also one the friendliest competitors off the court, serving as a proud ambassador for the rugged adaptive sport.

Fortified, custom-made, aerospace grade aluminum wheelchairs designed to withstand heavy collisions from all angles and directions, are essential equipment for competition. Being knocked hard to the ground and out of one’s wheelchair is part of the game. However, according to Aoki, that is only one facet of a complex, strategic sport.

“There is no other sport quite like it – on the outset, wheelchair rugby literally just looks like people in wheelchairs crashing into each other over-and-over again, but what people don’t realize is there are many tactics in terms of who crashes into who, why we hit the way we hit and why we do certain things,” Aoki explains. “The aggression is very purposeful.”

Without making direct comparisons to Tom Brady and his glory days leading the New England Patriots, the veteran Para athlete from Minnesota explains that Team USA runs a highly intricate offense.

“We almost always use three ball handlers on the court to try and spread the ball around to essentially take advantage of mismatches – it’s what we do more than most teams in the world,” he notes, with line-ups consisting of four players aside. “The game moves so fast and is exhausting, so we try to balance our workload among our players.” 

Strategically, Aoki expresses that an opportunistic defense is also a good offense.

“Our defense is predicated on ‘let’s force turnovers, let’s go get the ball, let’s swipe it out of their hands,’” the U.S. co-captain explains about the team’s identity. “We’re really aggressive on defense – top to bottom, every single player.”

Unsurprisingly, Aoki, who is classified with a 3.0 level of disability playing the sport, attacks overcoming his physical deficiencies as confidently and determined as he does his rugby rivals.

Aoki was diagnosed with hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy soon after his birth. The rare genetic disorder inhibits the feeling in his hands and feet. He continued walking during his childhood, but was advised by his doctor to use a wheelchair from the age of 12 as his condition worsened.

Chuck Aoki competes during the gold-medal game against Team Canada at the Parapan American Games Santiago 2023 on Nov. 23, 2023 in Santiago, Chile.

“We talk about the Paralympics as a gauntlet, because it is five games in five days against the best teams in the world,” Aoki says, his passion evident.

Aoki has been a stalwart on Team USA at both the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Heartbreaking gold medal game defeats to Australia (59-58 in Rio) in double overtime and Great Britain (54-49 in Tokyo) have been painful, as Aoki admits, but the battled-tested Para athlete believes that the U.S. will once again become champions of the rough and tumble sport in Paris.

“There’s a fire inside me to always perform my absolute the best – the reality is that every time I’ve gone to the Paralympic Games, the absolute best could result in a gold medal, so from that metric we certainly have come up short,” Aoki admits.

“I have a burning passion to be the best and being the best we can possibly be is something we talk a lot about, but as a team you try not to become too fixated on a single outcome because then you just freak out and it becomes stressful.

“Knowing that if we’re the best team we can be, we will win a gold medal, period,” the U.S. star says confidently.

The U.S. wheelchair rugby team has garnered two gold medals since the sport made its debut at the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000; however, their most recent title was at the Paralympic Games Beijing 2008. The U.S. has medaled at all six editions.

“The reality is that we live to fight to another day, so we can either sit and dwell on what we didn’t do in the past or we can focus on what we’re going to do this summer in Paris,” he said. “Overall, I feel really strong about the mix of players that we have.”

Scoring important tries and executing successfully at the most prestigious competitions are only part of Aoki’s greater drive and ambition. Aoki is 100 percent committed to inspiring the next generation of adaptive athletes, among others.

“It is of the utmost importance – when I grew up, being from Minnesota with my sports heroes Kevin Garnett and Kirby Puckett, I didn’t know anybody who looked like me or have any athletes that I could look up to and think I could be like that person,” Aoki says.

“It wasn’t until I went to a wheelchair basketball camp, at maybe 13, and I met a Paralympian named Paul Schulte, who is actually now back on the national team. He was the first Paralympic athlete I ever met and saw – that is what set me off on this journey.

“As the Paralympics have grown and with more awareness, it is so critical that I leave a legacy for the next generation of Paralympic athletes,” Aoki says.

Aoki is constantly teaching and sharing valuable perspective about disability as a blogger and contributor to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). His Instagram Stories are highly informative, humorous and extremely well-produced.

“Whether on social media or traditional media – I try really hard to tell my story and openly talk about being a disabled person,” Aoki says. “It’s absolutely about disabled youth and kids, but also for adults as well, who can become more neglected.

“Making sure that I can be that role model for any athlete, any person of disability at any age, male or female, is something that is very important to me. 

“That is sincerely worth everything to me, as much as any medal is,” Aoki says.