USA looks to bounce back at Toronto 2015 Parapan Ams
By Beau Greenway | Courtesy IPC
Chuck Aoki and his US team knew they had to wait a year to avenge their heartbreaking loss to Canada in the 2014 International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) World Championship.
They are still waiting – four months, to be exact – for when North America’s two top-ranked teams head to the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games in Canada (7-14 August).
That is enough time for Aoki, one of the most experienced players in the US lineup, to ensure that his team does not relive the World Championships memories.
The 24-year-old said his team has moved on from the disappointing result at Worlds and is eyeing another chance to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in the knowledge that only the winning team in Toronto will guarantee their ticket to Rio. Canada and the USA – ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the world, respectively – will battle for that ticket.
“It remains to be seen how much will be changed, but I know we have all re-doubled our efforts to train even harder, and become even better players,” Aoki said.
The feeling is different this time around for Team USA on their journey to Rio. By winning the 2010 World Championships, the US had already qualified for London 2012 before heading into their zonal qualifier.
“There's definitely more pressure now to have a good showing at Parapan Am Games headed toward Rio, not just for other countries to see, but for ourselves, and all of our supporters back here at home as well because we don't want to let them down,” he said.
From now until August, the US national team has to balance their mix of youth and experience. That’s an area where Aoki feels he and returning players need to step up.
“What is great about us is some of our experienced players, like myself, Joe Delagrave, and Derrick Helton, that have been on the team for several years, are still youthful in terms of age,” Aoki said.
“I've watched several players grow up in front of my eyes, and it's been great to see the development of our squad.”
But Aoki is not underestimating the competitiveness of Team Canada, who probably have just as big of a chip on their shoulders after finishing runner-up to World Champions Australia.
“I think we can beat them, but I also think that Canada has the ability to beat us,” Aoki said. “We are so well matched as teams, and Canada brings such an experienced roster to the table so there's no such thing as an easy game against them.
A key factor for the US will be to limit Zak Madell, whom Aoki said “without a doubt … makes Canada such a good team.”
“Rugby is a team sport and while Zak is a great player, it takes four great players on the court at any time to be successful,” Aoki said. “His speed has really gone to a new level, so we will have to play a great game to defeat them.”
USA gets its Parapan American Games campaign underway on 8 August against Argentina, while Canada faces Brazil before the two giants meet on 12 August. It will be the first year wheelchair rugby has been included in the Parapan Am Games.
For more information about Toronto 2015, as well as ticket purchases, visit the Toronto 2015 website