Wheeler Prepared for Paralympic 'Business Trip;' Will Join Several Wildcats in Tokyo
UArizona student-athlete Josh Wheeler hopes to help return U.S. wheelchair rugby to the top of the Paralympic podium for the first time since 2008.
Josh Wheeler 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.
More Paralympians with UArizona Ties
The following current and former Wildcat athletes and coaches will compete in seven different sports: men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball, men’s and women’s wheelchair tennis, wheelchair rugby, paracanoe, and track and field. They will represent three different countries – the U.S., Canada and Japan – as well as the Refugee Paralympic Team.
Chad Cohn (Team USA) will compete in wheelchair rugby. He won a bronze medal in 2012 and a silver in 2016. He is the current head coach of UArizona's wheelchair rugby team.
Chuck Aoki (Team USA) is a three-time Paralympian who previously attended UArizona and played for the university's wheelchair rugby team. He won a bronze Paralympic medal in 2012 and a silver in 2016.
Lee Fredette (Team USA) is a Tucson community member of the university's wheelchair rugby team and won Paralympic silver in 2016.
Travis Murao (Canada) is a former UArizona student and first-time Paralympian.
Daisuke Ikezaki (Japan) won bronze in Rio at his first Paralympics and helped UArizona win its first national championship in wheelchair rugby in 2018.
Women's Wheelchair Basketball
Darlene Hunter (Team USA) is a three-time Paralympian who won gold at the 2018 Rio Paralympics. Hunter will serve as co-captain for Team USA. She graduated from the university in 2004.
Josie Aslakson (Team USA) enters her first Paralympics just months after graduating from the university. She will stay with the Wildcat women's team, however, taking over as its new head coach.
Courtney Ryan (Team USA) is a 2015 UArizona graduate and assistant coach for the university's women’s wheelchair basketball team. She will join Aslakson as a first-time Paralympian.
Natalie Schneider (Team USA) brings a wealth of Paralympic experience to Team USA, having won gold medals in 2008 and 2016. She is a Tucson community member of UArizona's women's wheelchair basketball team.
Men's Wheelchair Basketball
Blaise Mutware (Canada) finished his first semester at UArizona in May as a remote student. Tokyo will be his first Paralympics.
Men's Wheelchair Tennis
Bryan Barten (Team USA) serves as UArizona's wheelchair tennis head coach. This will be his third Paralympic Games. He completed his undergraduate degree at UArizona in 1999 and master's degree in 2002.
David Wagner (Team USA) is a Tucson community member of the university's wheelchair tennis team and has competed in five Paralympic Games and won eight medals – three gold, three silver and two bronze.
Women's Wheelchair Tennis
Dana Mathewson (Team USA) earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree from UArizona in 2013 and 2020, respectively. This will be her second Paralympics.
Kaitlyn Verfeurth (Team USA) competed in tennis in the 2004, 2008 and 2016 games. The 2012 UArizona graduate will take on a new challenge in Tokyo: the 200-meter paracanoe race.
Whitney Dosty (Team USA) is a first-time Paralympian who graduated from UArizona in 2010.
Track and Field
Shahrad Nasajpour (Refugee Team) fled Iran and sought asylum in the U.S. in 2015. A year later, he served as flag bearer for independent Paralympic athletes at the closing ceremonies of the Rio Games. He graduated from UArizona in May and will compete in discus in Tokyo.
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