Even after being on the squad that helped the U.S. wheelchair rugby team qualify for this summer's Paralympic Games on its last chance, no one from that group was guaranteed a roster spot in Rio.
For two weeks, Chuck Aoki couldn’t relax.
With the United States wheelchair rugby team down to its last chance at qualifying for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics, stress mounted.
This was it.
So, after Aoki helped Team USA finish 7-0 and take home the title at April’s International Wheelchair Rugby Federation Paralympic Qualifier Tournament in Paris, you’d think he and the 14 other members would automatically make the 2016 Rio Games, right? Not so fast.
There was more.
Instead, they had to go through a rigorous, grueling three-day individual tryout selection camp at the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Ala.
From April 29 to May 1, their every move was scrutinized by a selection committee comprising coaches, high-performance managers and former players, who whittled the 35 Paralympic hopefuls down to a 16-player squad.
How’s that for pressure?
“You can see the tension on a lot of guys’ faces, and when you see their name called, you can watch relief come over them and a smile come on their face,” says Aoki, the team’s top-scoring 3.0-player. “It’s fun to be able to watch and see that. Their heart rates probably go down from 150 to 75.
“Your heart’s racing. You just want [coach] to get to the selection already and stop thanking everybody. When you hear your name, it’s a great relief. I’m lucky that I’m Aoki, so I’m, as of now, always at the top of the list with an A.”
Eleven of the 15 Paralympic qualifier team members made the 2016 U.S. Paralympic wheelchair rugby squad. Aoki, who’s one of those 11, is also one of seven members of the bronze-medal winning U.S. wheelchair rugby team from the London 2012 Paralympic Games who cracked the Rio training roster. This time, nine of Team USA’s 15 players have never experienced a Paralympic Games before.
“We are much younger, much rawer now,” says two-time Paralympian Seth McBride. “It’s exciting, because it means we’re going to be a lot less predictable than teams we’ve had in the past, when it comes to other teams being able to scout us.”
This year’s Paralympics run from Sept. 7–18, with Australia looking to defend the gold. Australia defeated Canada, 66-51, in the 2012 London Paralympics gold medal wheelchair rugby match. The United States earned bronze.
It had already been a wild ride for the athletes who were trying to become part of the most storied wheelchair rugby program in the world — the U.S. has four Paralympic medals to its name, including two golds.
The U.S. failed to qualify for the Paralympics at the 2014 World Championships or 2015 Parapan American Games and had to trek to Paris to earn one of two final slots available for the Rio 2016 tournament.
Tryouts and cuts for the U.S. wheelchair rugby Paralympic team were done old-school style, similar to what you’d see in the ice hockey movie, Miracle.
The first day, athletes went through skill tests and compulsory drills to allow the committee to gauge their fitness levels. Thereafter, coaches took them through specific setups and scrimmages to see how they would respond to various in-game situations.
There were two rounds of cuts during the week; a list of names was posted on the wall, with coaches then meeting one-on-one with each player they cut to detail what to work on for the next Paralympic cycle.
At the end of the tryouts, the remaining players were brought into a room for the last round of cuts, making for a nerve-racking atmosphere.
McBride, a 2.0 player who originally modeled his game play after New Zealand’s 2004 Paralympic champion Geremy Tinker, has become accustomed to the pressures that come with qualifying for the Paralympics, learning how to keep his nerves at bay.
It’s still a tryout for everybody, though.
“Nothing at tryouts is ever guaranteed, no matter how long or how well you’ve played in the past,” McBride says. “If you’ve been on the team forever but come out and have a terrible tryout, there’s definitely no guarantee you’re going to make the team if other people are outplaying you. But at the same time, if you’re off once or twice but have game experience to back you up, that definitely comes into the selection process.”
Previous Experience Helped
Already having Paralympic experience under their belts, veteran players McBride, Aoki, Joe Delagrave and Jason Regier thrived the most at tryouts, always hustling on the court and demonstrating leadership skills off the court.
They came across with grace, looking at ease, as if there was no pressure on them.
On the other end of the spectrum, most newcomers at tryouts were either not stressed at all and just happy to be there, or the opposite, flying around the court with a “deer in the headlights” look.
“I’m a big believer that stress is relatively self-induced in a lot of ways,” Aoki says. “You can put as much pressure on yourself as you want, or you can just go and play. If you’re freaked out at camp or by referees’ calls in tryouts, how are you going to handle 10,000 people in the stands at a sold-out stadium in Rio when the game’s on the line? If you can’t handle that, you’re not going to Rio.”
Eric Newby, who has been on the national team since 2013, but was trying to qualify for his first Paralympic team, was one of those players who felt the pressure as he fought for one of the five 2.0 spots against 13 other athletes in the classification.
“It was a grueling three days,” he says. “Nine hours of rugby per day. It was pretty rough. In tryouts, you don’t get the same breaks you do during a tournament, and your shoulders don’t get the rest they need. You’re just always pushing yourself mentally.”
But, as everything else has this year, tryouts clicked for Newby, too. After having already gotten engaged this year and moving to Colorado while keeping his full-time job as an art director intact, he earned his spot on the training roster as the icing on the cake.
“It’s intimidating and exciting all at the same time,” Newby says. “To put it all together and hear your name called at the end of the weekend, it’s pretty awesome.”
More Work To Do
Despite making the cut, there’s still work left to do, as four more players will be cut before the team actually heads to Rio.
A lot of eyes over the next few months will be on newcomer Alex Pabon, a wheelchair basketball player from the University of Texas-Arlington who stole some of the spotlight at his first wheelchair rugby tryouts.
“He showed up with this fired up, high-energy personality,” Aoki says. “He’s kind of a little pitbull on the court. He’s aggressive, ferocious and attacking on defense. He’s got a lot of potential, and I’m excited to see what he does going forward.”
The next couple of months will be jam- packed for the training squad, including two more competitions and camps at the Lakeshore Foundation, as well as at the Olympic Training Centers in both Colorado Springs, Colo., and Chula Vista, Calif.
“I’ve been around the program since 2006, and this will definitely be the busiest summer I’m ever going to be a part of,” McBride says.