With rules that include a mix from ice hockey, basketball and rugby, wheelchair rugby is one of the most aggressive sports at the Paralympic Games. Australia won gold Sunday in this year's tournament in London, defeating Canada. The U.S. team, reigning Paralympic champion and world number one, took bronze with a victory over Japan.
Jason Reiger and Chuck Aoki are two of the world’s elite athletes. Although there is a big age gap between the two, they share an intense dedication and have vigorous training regimes.
At 21, Aoki is the youngest player on the team and a first time Paralympian. He was born with a genetic condition, and says he became inspired to take up the sport after watching a movie.
“Well I was born with a very rare genetic condition and because of that I don't have sensations in my elbows and knees," he says. "I saw the movie Murderball, I thought you know this is cool, I love playing sports, I'm going to go give it a try and just been kinda, riding the wave ever since.”
Aoki started playing wheelchair rugby five years ago. He was named Most Valuable Player of the United States Quad Rugby Association's Division Two league in 2009. He has also won back-to-back National Wheelchair Basketball Association titles, and won gold at the 2009 American Zonal Championships.
“I absolutely hate losing," he says. "That motivates me and then I want to make, you know, people around me proud and part of me realizes that if whoever we're going to take off, the United States, we're going to be successful you know I mean, people love to cheer for winners so I think a lot of that motivates me."
Unlike Aoki, Reiger wasn't born with his disability. He began playing wheelchair rugby in rehabilitation after a car accident.
“I had a spinal cord injury about 16 years ago and when I was doing my rehabilitation at Craig Hospital, they actually played a tournament the last week I was there," he says. "First play this guy catches the ball and he gets knocked over on the ground and all the guys in wheelchairs were cheering. And I thought what the heck is this? I'm in a neck brace. About six months later I tried the game, and for me it was just that bit of freedom.”
Reiger is also an award-winning athlete. He was named US Quad Rugby Association's Athlete of the Year in 2008. He's also passionate about community work. He is active in the Challenged Athletes Foundation, an organization he regularly speaks for.
He says the Paralympic Games can have a big impact.
“I would say most of the Paralympic athletes just want to be treated like athletes," he says. "I think the biggest impact that we can make is it shows the human spirit. Everybody has their challenges and it's not about just going 'oh, this is my poor situation,' it's about what you can do, not what you can't do. “
Media organizations have come under criticism for providing less coverage to the Paralympic Games than the Olympic Games. Aoki says the Paralympics are where athletics come first, and disability second.
“We're not a sideshow at all you know," he says. "It's a full-on sporting event in its own right. Some people might view it that way but if they took the time to really look at how much training and time and effort all us athletes put into it they would see that it's just the same sporting event really, where athletics comes first and disability comes second.”
Reiger says those who think the Paralympics are not important do not understand the Games.
“To the folks that would say 'this is a part of it, they have to do it,' they don't understand the sports," he says. "I've had an opportunity to train as a top-level athlete before my injury and I have put in more training to play wheelchair rugby at the elite level and represent USA. We train just as hard as any other elite level athlete out there."
The U.S. wheelchair rugby team ranked number one during the last World Wheelchair Rugby Championships in 2010 in Vancouver, and brought home more gold medals than any other national team.