By Jason Ground, University Communications
Josh Wheeler ’23 BSBA (Accounting) is a man on a mission: to put the United States back at the top of the wheelchair rugby world.
Wheeler, a member of the University of Arizona wheelchair rugby team, is one of several current and former Wildcats taking part in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, beginning Aug. 24. A pre-business major, he plans to apply to the Eller College of Management's accounting program in September.
But before he studies business this fall, he has unfinished business this summer.
"In Rio, in 2016, we didn't play that great, and Australia played the best game I've ever seen them play, still to this day," said Wheeler, who won silver as a member of Team USA at the 2016 Rio Games. "Honestly, the USA used to be known as the team to beat in wheelchair rugby, but since I've joined the team, we haven't won a championship. We kind of have a chip on our shoulder."
COVID-19 postponed the Paralympics, originally scheduled for summer 2020. The delay put a kink in Team USA’s plans and preparations. Wheeler said finding a place to train became a challenge.
"We had to figure out how to keep in shape while gyms were closed. On the other hand, it was wonderful being home with my wife and kids, instead of traveling as much as I normally do with competitions," Wheeler said.
Wheeler, 41, grew up in Oregon but moved to Tucson, his wife's hometown, in 2015 and enrolled at the University of Arizona in 2020. He discovered wheelchair rugby in 2006 not long after a car accident damaged his spinal cord. He joined the U.S. national team as an alternate in 2010 and helped the U.S. win silver at the 2016 games in Rio.
There are eight wheelchair rugby teams in this year's Paralympic field, which is broken into two pools of four. Team USA landed in Pool B, where it will play one match each against Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand – "round-robin style" – with the top two teams advancing to the semifinals to face the top two teams from Pool A, which consists of Australia, Denmark, France and Japan. Teams defeated in the semifinals will compete for the bronze medal, and the semifinal winners will compete for gold.
"I think we have a great chance at medaling and a good chance at gold. As long as we come out and play our game and play like we are capable of, I think we will win gold," Wheeler said. "It's pretty amazing to wear our nation's colors and to have that USA across your chest. It's a pretty special experience for us."
The U.S. wheelchair rugby team last won Paralympic gold in 2008 when it beat Australia at the Beijing Games.
The University of Arizona boasts the nation's only collegiate wheelchair rugby program, one of seven competitive sports teams in the university's Adaptive Athletics Program, housed in the Disability Resource Center. The teams are open to athletes in the Tucson community, as well as UArizona students. In its more than 40-year history, UArizona Adaptive Athletics has sent 42 athletes to the Paralympics and has won a number of national titles, making the program a leader in the adaptive and wheelchair sports community.