In the heart of Colorado lies a sporting haven. Surrounded by the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains high up in the thin air, my teammates and I struggle to get out of the heat.
We enter a bustling indoor arena where tyres are screeching, exhausting the floor around them. The cries of support are coupled with anguish, echoing in the four walls. Sweat drops down the faces of the competitors as a ball catapults like a pin ball from one end to the other. The clock is ticking, when suddenly three players collide. A crashing energy cascades itself into the air. Up goes the ball. The grunts of pain squirm out as the action unfolds. We have just entered a place where athletes are at work; the USA Wheelchair Rugby team are in the middle of scrimmaging practice at the United States Olympic and Paralympic Training Centre (OTC), Colorado Springs.
As we get to court side the movements become quicker and the collisions become far more intense. A four versus four encounter battles its way out over four quarters lasting eight minutes. One point for every time a player can carry the ball over the line between the two cones, whilst the aim of the defence is to block and stop pathways for a free wheelchair runway towards goal. Impact is all part of this game, but this isn’t just a sport endeavouring to bring about brute force with the hope of launching a ball forward. The court acts like a chess board as players tactically work their way around talking to each other, reacting to what is going on.
Amongst the mêlée of players are Chuck Melton, from Illinois, and Joe Delagrave, from Wisconsin, who lead the US men in the arena. A band of brothers who share similar stories, choosing to use Wheelchair Rugby to express their ability rather than their ‘disability’.
“My Wheelchair Rugby career started five years from my spinal cord injury” explains Melton. “I was just 23 at the time and I dove into a lake and hit the bottom, it’s as simple as that. I was drunk and blacked out.
“To say the injury put me in a dark place is an understatement. I was a father of two and my wife was five months pregnant. In the five years post the accident I got up to 350 pounds, drinking, smoking and just not really doing anything. My wife told me straight up that I needed to get myself together or she’d leave me” admits Melton.
“It was only when a fellow rehabber mentioned to me about a Wheelchair Rugby team in St. Louis that I decided to check out what this game was all about. At the weight I was, I literally was strapped and duct-taped into the chair!
“Within the first practice I couldn’t help but fall in love with the game” expresses Melton. “The contact, the movement and the camaraderie were exactly what I needed. The team environment of Wheelchair Rugby allowed me to rely on these guys to get me through my situation. In many ways some of the guys you’re with in a team may be less functional than yourself so you actually treasure what you can do.”
Wheelchair Rugby clearly manged to change Chuck Melton’s attitude, but probably most importantly it saved his relationship and his life.
Categorised as 2.0 disability player, the man out of Illinois first made the US team in 2012, but his Paralympic debut experience wouldn’t come until 2016 in Rio. The United States have always been one of the consistent performers in Wheelchair Rugby, finishing on every podium of World Championships, Parapan Games and Paralympic Games. For Melton and his fellow team leader Joe Delagrave, Rio proved to be an agonising experience. A last-ditch goal from Australia in ‘double over-time’ was the difference between gold and silver medals.
“Our program in the US is so successful we see anything other than gold as not good enough” Delagrave admits as he reflects on the desperate loss a few years back.
“It used to be that it was harder to get in to the US side than coming up against other nations. Ultimately now the world has got much better and the sport has got so much bigger. Of course, Tokyo 2020 is at the back of our minds; it will be my third Paralympic Games.
“However, we are not getting carried away as we are training here at the OTC to prepare for the Parapan Games in Lima next month and qualify for the Paralympics. The squad will be made up of twelve players and competition for places is high” states Delagrave, who is also a category 2.0.
When watching practice, the competitive nature of the team is highly visible. These are athletes at the top of their sport giving no inch, getting knocked over but getting back up again. As Delagrave so beautifully puts it, “it’s a bunch of crippled people going around trying to make each other more crippled!” It is the disability aspect that is so highly thought of and brings the team together.
Delagrave, who got in to the sport in 2009, was only 19 at the time when he broke his neck in a boating accident along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin. Playing college football, towering at 6ft 5inch and weighing 260 pounds, the once tight end identified himself as an athlete.
“Going through college at the time my life just suddenly crumpled. For the first two years I didn’t want to do anything, and I certainly didn’t want to play these wheelchair sports.
“When I finally got introduced to ‘Murderball’ (now known as Wheelchair Rugby) in Minneapolis, like Chuck, I just loved the physicality and camaraderie. I honestly felt like that athlete I once was and wanted to be again” expresses Delagrave.
“You learn to reinvent yourself and it changes you into a different and undoubtedly better person. We know that humans want to hear about incredible stories but ultimately, we just want to show where we have come from to where we are now. We use each other to share our experiences and help each other. That builds chemistry like you wouldn’t imagine and that’s something so incredible about our sport. It drives you on as one.”
As our conversation came to an end the tired bodies faded away to the side lines to cool down. Melton and Delagrave were the voices of explanation for this spectacular sport but also the voices of a remarkable attitude for us all. The defiance of when knocked down to always get up and keep fighting. My teammates and I could not help but feel feeble when complaining about our blisters, bumps and bruises from the hot altitude training we were doing as ‘able’ bodied athletes. These guys are the real deal and the privilege was ours to be up close and see the battle that happens on the court. Chuck Melton and Joe Delagrave are just two inspiring stories of athletes who reinvented themselves and found success with Wheelchair Rugby. They lead their band of brothers hopefully towards Tokyo 2020 and a medal spot. I wish them the best of luck.
(Photos courtesy of Lexi Branta Coon)