Of the many memories Chuck Aoki has of his experiences as a wheelchair rugby player at the Paralympic Games, he said one stands out.
In the moments leading up to the first match of the London Summer Paralympics Games in 2012, Aoki lined up with his teammates in a stadium tunnel, waiting to wheel out onto the rugby court. In the highly anticipated match between Great Britain and the United States, energy filled the air as people packed into the stands.
The cheers from the crowd were so intense the walls of the tunnel shook and vibrated. As the teams entered the court to roars of applause, Aoki said he couldn’t even hear himself thinking.
“It’s the kind of thing you only get to experience so many times in your life, and to get to feel it that night, that day was just incredible,” said Aoki, community access navigator with U-M’s Adaptive Sports & Fitness program. “It’s something that will stick with me for a very, very long time as a special kind of feeling that I’m going to chase for a long time.”
Aoki was introduced to wheelchair rugby as a teenager.
Born with the genetic condition hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy type II, which results in loss of feeling below the knees and elbows, Aoki has used a wheelchair for most of his life. Growing up in Minneapolis, he loved being active and played wheelchair basketball from an early age.
In 2005, the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Murderball” about wheelchair rugby inspired a teenage Aoki to give the sport a try.
“I showed up (for the first practice) and I hopped in a chair and got smashed and beat up for about an hour and a half, two hours. I absolutely fell in love with it,” Aoki said.
To Aoki, one of the best parts of his wheelchair rugby experience has been the community. He said playing alongside and connecting with other people with disabilities is rewarding.
“I think sometimes folks with disabilities can be treated with kind of kid gloves,” Aoki said. “It can be super impactful to find people who are going through the same challenges as you to both help you find new strategies through it and help you, and kind of commiserate on the bad days and celebrate victories, but also push you in a way that maybe other people can’t in your life.”
Now with 15 years of experience under his belt, Aoki is regarded as one of the best wheelchair rugby players in the world. He plays for the U.S. national wheelchair rugby team and has competed in three Paralympic Games.
Aoki regularly trains by himself throughout the year in Ann Arbor, where he lives with his wife, a graduate student at U-M. While he enjoys solo training, Aoki said he looks forward to traveling for games and the opportunity to play with a team.
Even after playing in thousands of matches, Aoki still finds himself with a pit of nerves prior to every match. That feeling of anticipation, Aoki said, adds a dimension of excitement and fun to the sport.
“It’s a nervous excitement, which is really cool. It’s not something you feel in your day-to-day life, so to get to feel it before I compete is super special, and I love it now and embrace it,” Aoki said.
Aoki has competed in the past three Paralympic Games — in London, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo — and he is training for the 2024 Games in Paris. The London games earned him a bronze medal, and he brought home silver from the Rio and Tokyo games. While he hopes for a gold in Paris, Aoki said, he sees playing in the tournament as its own prize.
“It’s always a thrill to get to put on the Team USA jersey and head out there and compete on the world stage. It’s such an incredible privilege I never thought I’d get to do,” Aoki said.
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The Tokyo Games took place in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leading up to the Games, Aoki was voted by his cohort of fellow Paralympians to serve as the male flag bearer to lead the U.S. athletes during the opening ceremony. Millions of people from around the world tuned in to the live stream to see Aoki wave the American flag in the procession alongside Paralympic swimmer Melissa Stockwell.
“It was really special to lead out the entire delegation and to be selected by my peers of all incredible athletes and incredible leaders,” Aoki said. “To be the one to lead us out was a really special feeling that I’ll never forget.”
This November, Aoki will travel to Santiago, Chile, for the Paris Paralympic qualifiers. He said he’s excited to start playing with the team, which will have several young players.
“For me now being a more veteran athlete, to get to see the young players come and experience it for the first time is truly a special thing, especially when you grow up with a disability to then suddenly be on this world stage where your disability is not something to be ashamed of or nervous about, but actually celebrated,” Aoki said.