Prairie’s Paralympian regroups, considers next move

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Joe Delagrave eyes his next move during one of five rugby matches at the Tokyo Paralympic Games last month.

As co-captain of Team USA, Prairie du Chien’s hometown boy, Joe Delagrave, was front and center for much of the wheelchair rugby competition and appearances. He was a constant voice for the men on and off the court as they worked their way to a silver medal. (Photos by Lexi Coon)

Joe Delagrave looks down the court, flanked by teammate Jeff Butler (right) and Canada's Zak Madell.

By Correne Martin

 

Joe Delagrave arrived back in Wisconsin, from Tokyo, on Aug. 31, with his new silver Paralympic medal in tow.

For now, the medal is “just kinda chillin’ on the counter” at his home in Holmen—a reflective and solid reminder of all he’s accomplished as a member of the USA Wheelchair Rugby Team. 

Since returning two weeks ago, Joe, 36, has made time to relax and love on his wife and three young children. 

Joe has also relished in the phenomenon he and his teammates achieved at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Japan’s capital city, where Team USA earned second place on the international stage. The gold medal match was a close one, from start to finish, but Great Britain prevailed, 54-49, taking home their first-ever Paralympic gold in wheelchair rugby. (Japan won bronze.)

Five matches in five days was a lot for the team, said Joe, a team co-captain. Although silver wasn’t exactly the goal, the men are proud of their journey and their fight. 

“Each team is a different group of guys. This squad has been doing things the right way: rooted in love and building each other up. We learned to be better men, not only on the court but in life,” he stated. 

This year was Joe’s 13th consecutive year on the national wheelchair rugby team—an endeavor the Prairie du Chien native has sustained after becoming paralyzed in 2004, at age 19, following a boating accident. 

This was also his second Paralympic medal. He and Team USA brought home bronze in 2012 from London. Joe didn’t compete at the Rio Paralympics in 2016; he said he was one of 16 on the training squad but didn’t make the final cut of 12 players to advance to the Games that year. 

But for the 2020 Paralympics, which were postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19, Joe made the final 12. 

“It was so different this time. I wasn’t necessarily in awe of everything around me,” he shared, remembering the wonderment of the 2012 Games. Also, due to the lingering cautions related to Covid, the usual enormous crowds were not allowed to gather at the Tokyo Paralympics and there was no option to take in tourist sites before or after competing. “This time, it was more about our goals and making them happen. Some of the guys, it was their first, second, or even third time in the Games. So getting to see it through their eyes was so important for me.”

The team arrived in Japan Aug. 18 and started the five days of matches Aug. 25. Upon winning silver and receiving their medals, the team had 48 hours to get out of Tokyo, Joe said. Normally, they would have stayed throughout the entire Games  and taken in the sights.

Thankfully, many of this year’s players had participated in the Amateur Rugby World Challenge in Tokyo in October 2019 and “got to do the tourism circuit then,” he noted. 

With the World Championships a few months away and Paris 2024 in three years, the American wheelchair rugby team will regroup soon and place their eyes on their next challenge. 

“If we continue on, tryouts are in December for the World Championship team. I haven’t decided if I’m gonna continue on or not,” Joe remarked.

Soon, though, he will hang that silver medal on the wall with his bronze medal, and make his decision about whether to continue seeking success on the rugby court or move forward with family life and his career in motivational speaking (learn more at joedelagrave.com).

“I don’t think I ever really dreamed to be wearing “USA” across my chest, representing Prairie, Wisconsin, and the whole country,” Joe said, thinking about growing up in his hometown. “Prairie is blue collar. You see farmers, factory workers and a lot of other hard workers growing up. It’s something you get instilled in you, and I’ve carried it with me all my life.”

Joe believes there are good rewards out there for those who put in the hard work. He also attributes his successes and significance to two personal convictions in particular.

“Having people around me that believed in me, especially community-wide when I broke my neck, lifted me up. When you have goals, dreams and desires and you share those around good, supportive people, they will encourage you, but still pull you back when they need to,” he advised. “Surround yourself with those kinds of people.”

Second, Joe said everyone should take responsibility for their own reactions to whatever circumstances arise. 

“Whether it’s financial, divorce, loss, disease or another obstacle, we’re all gonna go through something. We can’t control that. It’s easy to play the blame game,” he said. “But I can have responsibility over how I react. I can control my response.” 

This positive attitude—in the face of overwhelming circumstances—is what has landed Joe where he is today. 

Eventually, when international rugby becomes more a part of his past than his present, Joe truly feels his purpose in life is to “inspire people to inspire themselves.”

He added, “I’m super grateful to have grown up in a city that has very good values and morals that became a part of who I am.”

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