Joe Jackson is shown on the court in happier, pre-pandemic times.
Just like with wheelchair basketball, the USA Wheelchair Rugby team is finding it challenging to bring players together to practice and ready themselves for the Paralympics. The 16 -player roster would normally have been culled down to 12 in preparation for the games, but the athletes never reached that point.
Josh Wheeler fell in love with rugby as a way to have the same contact and hits he enjoyed from football before his SCI at both the cervical and thoracic levels. He was looking forward to his second Paralympic experience, having participated in the Rio games in 2016. The USA team was in the United Kingdom for a tournament when everything stopped for the pandemic.
Wheeler had mixed emotions about the season’s abrupt ending. “It was hard at first to hear that play and practice was over, that everything you could do was on your own basically,” he says. “I actually hadn’t taken a break from when I started playing in 2008. I took that and it was nice.”
He watches videos and trains on his own, focusing on maintaining his physical readiness for the next possibility to get together as a group. He isn’t worried about the team’s performance from the break in training. “Our chemistry on the court will come back quickly. Seven or eight of us have had eight-plus years together. Some of the newer athletes might have a challenge, but there is still time. As an athlete, there is nothing I can do about it except train my hardest so that if the games do happen, I’ll be ready myself.”
Teammate Joe Jackson had a similar set of emotions when the season ended abruptly, “I felt like I was in a really good place endurance-wise, mentally,” says the C6 quad. “When COVID struck, I thought it would still be fine. I thought they wouldn’t postpone it. Then we got the news, and it was like a kick in the face.”
Jackson took the break as a chance to build strength and mental toughness. He studied the game, analyzing it rather than just participating in the physical work. He found keeping motivated by working out at home a real obstacle, so when a former football teammate opened an outdoor workout facility, he jumped at a chance to train in a gym again. He wakes up as early as 4 a.m. to beat the Arizona heat three times a week.
Jackson does feel that the team will eventually have to get back to business. “If there isn’t a camp by November or December, we have to look at risk over reward,” he says. “If we want that gold medal, we are going to have to train.”
Athletes aspiring to the USA team are feeling the pinch from pandemic restrictions. Talbot Kennedy, a C5-6 quad, was a member of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team in 2017. He was working hard toward a Paralympic goal, eventually making a traveling squad in 2018, “Every training camp is a tryout to make the 12-person travel team,” he says. “It keeps you on your game. You don’t get complacent.”
He didn’t fit into the lineup for the team in 2019, but planned to get an edge at the tryouts in December after the Tokyo Games. “Sometimes the Paralympic athletes take off after the games, opening spots for others to get on the team to develop and hopefully keep a spot,” he says. Once a player gets that spot, they have access to a sports and strength conditioning coach, a nutritionist, a counselor. “There is professional coaching. You have equipment, a medical staff and healthy meals provided for you.”
Now, with training stopped, it’s hard to get to a higher level of performance. Kennedy feels ready for recreational league play but that extra nudge to get him back on a Paralympic path is missing. He’s respectful of the pandemic, despite personal goals, “I’m ready to play, but I take COVID seriously,” he says. “I can wait a year out of my life to play rugby.”