TOKYO, Japan— You could see the sweat dripping down their faces on the big screens. The U.S. wheelchair rugby team was muscling their way through their rematch with the Aussies, and they were going to amend any hold-ups they still had about their 2016 Rio double-overtime loss in the final match. That time, they went home with silver while Australia took the gold. Now in Tokyo 2020, their final game will be against Britain.
Australia came out hard with a strong defense, but it was a series of several turnovers that turned out to be fatal to them.
“We knew Aussie was gonna come out with everything they had. I mean, they wanted to win just as bad. They’ve been playing hard all week long,” said Melton. “We knew they were never gonna give up. They were gonna play strong the entire game, so we knew Aussie was gonna be a tough one for us, but we executed what we wanted.”
The team expressed respect for Australia and Britain alike, acknowledging the challenge the two teams present to them – especially the one they must face tomorrow.
“I’m excited, I can’t wait. I know we’ve got a tough opponent, but I have faith that my team’s gonna be ready. . . [Britain] has a lot of good players. They’ve got Jim Roberts, who has a lot of smarts and knowledge of the sport, so it’s gonna be a tough one,” said Ray Hennagir.
Co-captain of the team Joe Delagrave isn’t overly concerned or preoccupied with the idea of getting gold in their final match – or at least, it’s not his first priority.
“It’s the end of a journey, obviously, for a lot of us and for this team, and it means the world to me. But for me, if you don’t use that platform of a gold medal Paralympic champion, then you’re missing the point,” said Delagrave. “At the end of the day, gold doesn’t really matter that much. My family, my kids, my faith matters a lot more, but obviously I want to go out and win.”
As per usual, Aoki led with 27 tries. Although co-captain Delagrave has called Aoki the “key man,” the player has a humbler approach of viewing the team dynamics.
“I think I’m a great player on a great team. I think there’s phenomenal players all up and down our classifications, and some days it looks like I’m the star, but we’ve got 12 stars on our team in my opinion,” said Aoki.
Melton mentioned having a motto dedicated to their late teammate Nick Springer, who died in April of unknown causes while swimming laps in a friend’s pool.
“We never get down on ourselves. We’re hungry, we hustle, and we have heart. That’s our three words; our mantra. We use it in memory of our fallen player Nick Springer, and it’s carrying us through every game. We couldn’t be more proud of this team right now, and we’re so looking forward to playing in that game tomorrow.”