TOKYO, Japan — The United States Wheelchair Rugby Team beat New Zealand yesterday at their very first Tokyo 2020 Paralympic match, winning 65-35 and starting strong. Today they kept the momentum up, winning against rival Canada 58-54 in the pool phase for group B, led by Team USA flag-bearer Chuck Aoki with 30 tries.
Someone watching during the first half would have their head would spin from the speed with which the teams alternated getting the ball past each other’s goal lines. When one team scored, the other would swoop in and snag a try immediately after. They stayed at each other’s heels, one team then the other- toe to toe like a great boxing match for the entire first two quarters.
“Canada plays a really tough, aggressive form of defense, and so we’ve got to weather that too and I thought we did a better job in the second half doing that. First half, maybe we weren’t ready for it,” said team co-captain Joe Delagrave.
It wasn’t until the second half that they were able to “widen the gap,” as Delagrave put it.
Canada’s Zak Madell gave the U.S. a run for its money with 31 tries, one more than Aoki scored during the match.
“[Us and Canada] know each other really, really well, and so it’s like, who is gonna execute?” said Delagrave.
“Know each other well” may even be an understatement when referring to USA and Canada in wheelchair rugby.
The history behind the deep-rooted rivalry between the U.S. and Canadian teams is a long and complicated one, but also one that has evolved throughout the years and taken on a friendlier tone than the days of 2005 documentary film “Murderball.”
“Canada is a phenomenal opponent, they brought their A-game, and to get a win in such a challenging game like that is awesome,” Aoki said. “We were kind of letting them dictate the pace, them dictate the flow of the game, and so it was a little frustrating, but I thought we did a nice job of settling down in the second quarter, and in the third and the fourth, and really taking control of the initiative.”
Having to go up against fearsome competitors day after day must be exhausting, but the team maintains their adrenaline to come out on top.
“We just keep the energy up all the way through. . . A lot of the guys have natural high levels of energy. I like to recover a lot, get a lot of rest and recovery, and be prepared to come out the next day hard,” said Joshua Wheeler.
The team had to switch jerseys in the halftime due to visibility issues; USA and Canada were both outfitted in black, making it difficult for referees and the audience to tell them apart. They re-emerged in white, and Delagrave joked that they were like “The Mighty Ducks 2.”
They all seemed in good spirits after having won their second preliminary match, and none of them expressed having had even a moment of doubt in their ability to win the game.
“I was pretty confident the whole way though. Even when we were down by three, whenever that was, I was pretty confident that we were gonna bring it back,” said Wheeler.
And bring it back they did. All the way back past Canada’s goal line for the winning score.
The team’s last gold medal was in Beijing in 2008; They lost to Australia in a match for gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. This might just be their chance for a rematch.
“We took a lot of hits today and we came out on top, so I think it will give our team a lot of confidence knowing that whatever adversity we face in the next few days, we’ll be able to fight through it and hopefully come out on top again,” Aoki said.
U.S. Head Coach James Gumbert also feels that the team is ready to face any challenge.
“We are sharp (and) I feel very confident about our ability to go out and play with anybody in this tournament,” said Gumbert.
For team Canada it will be a tough battle to the next round as it stands now. Canada sits at the bottom of the pool with New Zealand, Great Britain, and The United States above them in that order. With the win, the United States finds a place in the next round.
The United States next plays Great Britain, finishing off Pool play on August 27th at 20:30 local time, (4:30 AM EST).