Paralympic gold was just out of reach for Team USA rugby despite a solid game plan
By Beatriz De La Portilla
Clutching his silver medal and staring down upon it, Chuck Aoki shut his eyes and the tears began to fall. Earlier, he’d been consoling Chad Cohn, whose head fell back as he wept openly on the court after a crushing loss in the final medal match against Great Britain’s wheelchair rugby team.
To say that the United States wheelchair rugby team was deeply cut by the defeat at the hands of the British team would be an understatement. The atmosphere was that of a funeral.
During the medal ceremony, as Japan received the bronze medal, Britain got the gold medal and the U.S. solemnly accepted the silver medal, the team looked grim.
From the very first quarter, things weren’t looking good. Great Britain maintained a lead between three to four tries the entire first half. Then in the third quarter, the U.S. team fought and muscled its way to catch up and stay at least on even footing with its competitors.
There were moments in the second half where the U.S. would tie up with Britain and there was real hope – but it was never quite enough.
“[Great Britain] gave us one of the toughest games ever. We had a plan of execution, they counteracted, we kept going back and forth – unfortunately, we just couldn’t come out on top today,” said co-captain Chuck Melton.
They didn’t manage to get a point up on the British team for the entire game.
“The way they played and how calm they were on offense really helped us to be calm on the side,” said British team player Chris Ryan about his own team. “It’s a massive hurdle we’ve got over and just their calmness was incredible.”
And it was true. They were calm. They were confident. And they were ruthlessly methodical.
It likely wouldn’t be a stretch to say most people in the world would consider a silver medal to be an incredible achievement, but Team USA felt the weight of gold slipping through their fingers.
“Unfortunately, it does [feel like a loss]. We had our sights set on gold, you know. We were here five years ago, and we’re here again today,” said Aoki, referring to their loss to Australia in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Paralympics. “We set our sights on being the best in the world, and we came up a little bit short. We know it’s an amazing accomplishment to get to this point, but we’re disappointed. This isn’t the result we wanted.”
Aoki admits the British team earned their gold that night.
“I think they had a game plan we weren’t quite ready for, perhaps, defensively. I think they used their high-pointers very effectively and their low-pointers … But I also think we made mistakes we don’t usually make,” Aoki said.
The U.S. team isn’t the type to stay down when it gets knocked down, according to its players.
“It’s heartbreaking. At the same time, you are proud, because you’re there. You represented your country,” said co-captain Chuck Melton.
Melton said team members would watch videos of their games and critique one another in order to improve and prepare for the future — the same way they’ve been doing throughout the last several years.
“We’ll take this, we’ll analyze it, and we’ll come back stronger than ever,” he said.