Chuck Aoki: U.S. Paralympian, Wheelchair Rugby

Team USA Paralympians: Road to Tokyo

U.S. Paralympian Chuck Aoki has used a wheelchair for most of his life, due to a condition called hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy. But that hasn't stopped him from competing. Aoki, captain of the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team, shares his story and his journey to compete in Tokyo.

Posted on:

July 15, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: The U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby team is focused on one thing, and that's going for the gold. And two-time Paralympian Chuck Aoki, captain of the national team, hopes to lead the way at the Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Chuck has used a wheelchair for most of his life due to a genetic condition called hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy. But that didn't stop him from competing, and he is here to share his story with us. And, Chuck, thanks for being here.

Aoki: Hey, Tetiana. Thanks so much for having me.

Anderson: So, you played wheelchair basketball for years, I understand, but then you got inspired and motivated to pick another sport, and it was because of a movie. I know people receive inspiration from lots of different places, but you've got to tell me about that one.

Aoki: Yeah. So, like you said, I grew up playing wheelchair basketball, which I loved. It was a fun sport. I had a great time doing it, met a lot of good friends. But in 2004, when I was a 15-year-old kid in high school, I saw this movie called "Murderball," which is about the 2004 U.S. Paralympic team. And I saw this sport. It was about wheelchair rugby. And I saw these guys smash into each other and talking trash and just, you know, having a great time, partying. And, of course, a teenage boy is like, "That's the sport I want to play." And my mom, of course, was like, "Uh, no, you're not gonna play that sport." But we went back and forth for a little while until finally I convinced her to let me go to a practice in Minnesota, where I'm from. And I went there and they looked at me, all 120 pounds of me, and said, "You want to play rugby?" And I said, "Yeah, I want to play." And so they said, "Alright, you can give it a try." And so I got in a chair, I got beat up, knocked around, sent flying into walls, tipped over, the whole nine yards. And on the drive home, my dad, who'd taken me to practice, looked at me and goes, "So, what did you think? How was it?" You could tell he wasn't sure 'cause he'd watched me get beat up for an hour and a half straight. And I was like, "I loved it!" I was hooked. And so instantly from that day forward, I was -- I was a rugby player, and I've been lucky how successful I've been in my career.

Anderson: And, Chuck, how did you do it? I mean, what did it take for you to become a Paralympic athlete?

Aoki: I think for me to become a Paralympic athlete, it really took working two sides of my body, which was the physical side, of course -- you know, training, working hard, doing sprints up parking garages, slamming medicine balls off walls for what felt like hours on end, you know, and really training myself to be healthy, eating well, all those sorts of things. But I think the underrated side of what has helped me become an elite athlete -- I think it's true for all elite athletes -- is the mental side of my game. You know, I have to -- You have to... Everyone moves at such a fast pace at the elite level that there's not time to spend thinking. You just have to react, and you have to react accurately. And so I think it's just as important for my career that I've trained my mental side as hard as I've trained my physical side, because without the two things in combination, I would not have been able to be as successful as I am today.

Anderson: And, you know, the mental side really is impactful when it comes to what's after sports, and of course, athletes retire. So I'm wondering, you know, what's next for you after you're done with sports?

Aoki: Yeah. So, I've got a lot of different things I like to do. I'm currently working on my PhD, so part of me would love to be a professor and teach. My undergraduate degree is in teaching, and I've always loved teaching. I think teaching is so important, something that we should spend a lot of time doing, giving back, you know, educating those younger than us. And so that's certainly one aspect of my life I'd like to engage in. But another part of my life that's always been really important to me is giving back to adapt athletes who were just like me at one point in my life. Because when I grew up as a kid with a disability, there weren't any role models who really looked like me that I could look up to. You know, I'm from Minnesota, so I had Kevin Garnett and all the famous Minnesota sports stars I could look at and really see, you know, "Oh, I want to be like those guys." But it wasn't until I met an actual Paralympian, which didn't happen until I was a teenager, that I said, "Hey, there's someone who looks like me who has the same kind of challenges I do. I want to be like them." And that was really impactful for me, and part of me, in my life, I hope I can be an advocate for kids with disabilities, for athletes with disabilities everywhere, and to really help engage the able-bodied populations of our country to learn about the challenges that disabled athletes face and some of the unique needs we have and how we can work as a society as a whole to find more opportunities for every athlete, with a disability and without a disability.

Anderson: And quickly, we don't have a lot of time left, but you talked about being an advocate. Is there a mechanism that you're envisioning on how you want to do that?

Aoki: Yeah, part of what I'd love to do is start a foundation for kids with disabilities to get adaptive equipment to them, because the reality is, it's not like when you want to play wheelchair basketball, you just can buy a pair of shoes like an able-bodied kid can. You need to buy highly specialized, specific equipment that you're gonna also outgrow at some point in your life. And so that's a big part of what I'd like to do eventually in my life, is start a foundation so I can give grants to kids that can get hold of this adaptive equipment and be able to use it and learn it together. That's something that I'd really love to do because increasing access to adaptive sports is so important to me, and I think it's important for kids everywhere and for our country.

Anderson: Chuck Aoki, Paralympian, thank you so much for joining us.

Aoki: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Anderson: And you can see the Paralympic Games in Tokyo on the networks of NBC Universal. And as always, thanks for watching. And for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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