The USA wheelchair rugby co-captain aims for another shot at Paralympic glory at the Tokyo Games this 2021, whilst inspiring others with his message of hope.
Resilience, inner drive and perseverance – these are the tenets that have guided Joe Delagrave’s career as a Paralympian.
From delivering a bronze medal performance at London 2012 and then missing out playing with the team at Rio 2016, to now being able to chase the Paralympic dream again at Tokyo 2020 in 2021 – Delagrave has learnt to navigate the ups and downs of his career as a wheelchair rugby player and still come out of it on top.
Throughout this pandemic, Delagrave is still in the eye-of-the-tiger-mode, finding himself sometimes tapping into his inner Rocky Balboa and training with whatever's available.
"I equate [this pandemic to] the Rocky Balboa movies. I feel like it was just finding anything heavy and lift it like my kids. And we made a little home gym downstairs which was kind of neat. We put it in red, white and blue USA colours and made a chaos wall because this year's been chaotic."
In a year where COVID-19 has upended team training plans, there's one thing that Delagrave is not forgetting is keeping up with the basics and improving his game.
“One of the things I'm looking at and improving for me is just making sure taking this year and going, ‘we had a year extra bonus year to get better, ‘where's my weaknesses and where [are] my strengths, can I get better?',” Delagrave told Tokyo 2020, before adding, "and some of that for me was just getting a little bit stronger and faster, which I think I'm doing a good job of and so we'll see once Tokyo rolls around if it's a good job."
Luckily, Delagrave got the chance to finally get together with the team at the beginning of the year.
“It was really neat to see everyone come into the camp. [Everyone was in] really good shape, great attitude, which I thought, wow, that's what we do. I think we definitely did a good job of keeping connected and motivated throughout the whole thing,” he said.
They have a few training camps in April before they head out to Tokyo and whilst the final squad is yet to be named later on this summer, Delagrave's chances are relatively high. He is currently a co-captain of the team and not only has years of hard-won experience in a Paralympic Games but has steered the team to win in the Parapan American Games (gold, 2019) and other world championships (bronze, 2018).
For Delagrave believes the current team being built for Tokyo 2020 would definitely be special.
“The team that we have now, we have a lot of guys that have been there for a long time. And so we love each other and there's great chemistry then there's newer guys, too, that this is a first round for them and that's really special too.”
A leap of faith
Delagrave may now be a veteran athlete for one of the most successful teams in the world, but if it weren't for his rock-solid faith, his path would have been much different.
In 2004, when he was 19 and still at the peak of his college football career at the Winona State University, a boating accident left Delagrave with a life-altering spinal cord injury, making him paralysed from the chest down.
His saving grace was a Bible verse.
“About a week from [my] accident, I was wearing on that shirt [that] had Bible verse Proverbs 3:5-6 [that says]: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge him and he'll direct your path’. And it was one of those things that after my accident I kind of clung to that verse because I was at 19, you feel so invincible and something like this happens.”
That verse helped him reassess his life and accept his new reality. He went back to school, got married and then discovered wheelchair rugby.
"I looked up sports and I found this wheelchair rugby thing and I saw these people smashing into each other and I'm like what in the world? When you see rugby for the first time, you kind of go and [say], are these people crazy? And so I went to my practise and I got hooked."
In wheelchair rugby, he found a community where he found his second wind as an athlete and helped normalise his impairment.
“It was really, really important for me to find this community because right away after my accident, I wanted nothing to do with people in wheelchairs."
"And it was one of the most beautiful things that a lot of rugby players experience after an accident. They get in a chair again and they're like, 'wow, I'm an athlete again'."
Moreover, he's able to keep playing in the same team dynamics which he had always loved as an athlete.
"There's so many different puzzle pieces [in a team sport]. Where does this guy fit in? His strengths are this and his strengths are this or her strengths. And then all of a sudden you've got this beautiful mix where five individuals make up something greater than just those five. So I just love that about team sports," he said.
A message of hope
After making the national team in 2009/2010, Delagrave made his Paralympic debut in London 2012, which was a real validation for him as an athlete.
“There's two memories that are just awesome is the Opening Ceremonies and then the crowd and 80,000 people. And you walk in and it's just deafening and you're marching with all the different countries and it was just beautiful."
“Our first game was against Great Britain in the London 2012 Paralympics. And so obviously the crowd was not for us, but it was just amazing. It was sold out and pretty close good game as well that we ended up winning. But it was such a beautiful debut to end up winning,” he continued.
With that experience and with all the positive things that came after his accident, the wheelchair rugby player says it was apparent that his life had a further purpose.
“I would just say [to my 19-year-old self] just get in the wheelchair. It's such a beautiful opportunity because if you get in a wheelchair, you'll go back to college and earn your degree. If you get in a wheelchair, you're going to marry your sweetheart. If you get in the wheelchair, you're going to have kids, three of them. If you're in the wheelchair, you can have this amazing sport that you get to wear your country's colours on and travel the world.”
Even when he missed the cut for Rio 2016 whilst his team secured a silver medal, the Paralympian learned to bounce back and remained positive.
"You re-evaluate things, you know, how can I get better? You can only control what you can control. And so for me, I'm going, 'how am I going to respond to this?'. Am I going to blame someone else or am I going to figure out, hey, maybe I could have gotten better as an athlete, physically or as a leader this way mentally. And that's what I chose to do."
A servant leader
Delagrave loves sharing his story with other people. Whenever he has speaking engagements, he always tells people that there's always a choice not to be a victim of circumstances.
"Some people can't relate obviously to being paralysed and being in a wheelchair but we all have that wheelchair and whether it's depression or anxiety or divorce or losing a family member or a job or whatever it would be, a lot of people go through things and those circumstances can sometimes control us."
"[But] we can get back up and God's got a plan for us. And let's choose to find an opportunity. Let's choose to be positive in this moment and go, you know what? There's still life to live. There's still opportunities out there and we have control over that. And that's what I just love to share with people," the player said sounding like a true bonafide motivational speaker.
Whilst wheelchair rugby is still at the top of the list come Tokyo 2020, Delagrave plans to become full-time keynote speaker in the future. In fact, he is already started laying down the groundwork for his future business of helping people and is constantly booking speaking engagements left and right.
Rugby's been a passion and it's been amazing but it's not my [only] purpose in life.
I really love to be on the stage and speak and not only motivate and inspire, but hopefully get people to look in the mirror to go 'I've got a choice in this. I got a personal responsibility to take care of here'. And so it ends up being kind of transformational, ends up being where we're not looking at victory on the court — we're looking at victory in life."
There's also another group of people that he likes to continue to inspire: his own wheelchair rugby team. As a co-captain of the team, he seeks to be a leader that not only leads but serves.
“What does a leader look like? He's a servant. He's a guy that's going to speak when he needs to, but at the same time [he also needs to] really get to know the people that he's serving so he can serve them better,” he said.
Another shot at glory
The Paralympian is proud of how far the sport of wheelchair rugby has grown into a much bigger community ever since he started in the sport. The stakes are higher, the equipment getting better, and now there are at least four to six teams in contention for a medal for Tokyo.
“It is a beautiful sport. Number one, the way it's evolved in a lot of countries - [wheelchair rugby] have gotten a lot better [with] Japan being one of them winning world championships in 2018. And then everyone's gotten faster and smarter and stronger and that's really great.”
"Obviously, as far as the game evolves, so does the equipment. There's a lot of cool stuff happening with the equipment and making it even more streamlined to your body. And so that's really neat to see as well. It's expensive. It's an expensive sport with expensive chairs."
But whilst the sport continues to evolve, in the upcoming Games this summer, Delagrave says the US team is bent on winning their third gold medal following the team's victory in Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008.
"I don't think any team is going to go there and don't want to win and we're no different, we definitely want to go there and win a gold medal," the co-captain said.
He says they are in the best shape ever but admits there's work to be done.
"I like our chances and we're not going to take anything for granted. There's a lot of good teams that are going to be there and anyone can win on a given day. So we've got to show up and play our best to be able to win."
"We're really focused and dialled into our discipline and from all the phases: nutrition, sports psychology, our physical training schedule and just communicating throughout the country as well."
While the top of the podium is the dream, Delagrave knows that there's more to it than the gold medal.
"We all want to win gold but it's not going to validate me as a husband or father. It's not going to validate me as a leader. The whole journey and the foundation of loving my brothers and sisters in the programme and being able to serve them is something that I learnt kind of the hard way," he said.
When Delegrave lands in Tokyo this summer he will be a Paralympian, a leader, a motivational speaker and more but most of all, a person who seizes every opportunity despite setbacks to win all sides in this game of life.
US wheelchair rugby player Joe Delagrave talks about finding hope after a boating accident at 19, about Tokyo 2020 and why he wants to spread his message of positivity to the world.
Watch the US team along with the best teams in the world compete in the wheelchair rugby events from 25 to 29 August 2021 at Yoyogi National Stadium.
The draw for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games tournament takes place 11am BST on 28 April, 2021, and you can follow the action on the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation YouTube channel.