If this felt like a big, impactful moment then it was surely appropriate. Wheelchair rugby, the sport of smashing and grabbing and sprinting and crashing, is a definitive Paralympic event. It’s a sport of danger and cunning and of absolute granite determination. For the first time, Great Britain are the champions.
Led by Stuart Robinson, the former RAF gunner who lost both his legs to an IED in Afghanistan, and Jim Roberts, who turned to wheelchair rugby during the three years he spent in hospital recovering from bacterial meningitis, Great Britain beat the United States – the most successful nation in the history of the sport – by 54 tries to 49 and led from start to finish.
Not that it was easy. The US team, led by the cunning Charles Aoki, steadily reduced a three-point first-quarter deficit to put the game in the balance in the final eight-minute period. After relying throughout on Roberts’ consistent scoring, however, it was a triumphant final quarter from Robinson that secured victory. Coming back from a turnover that had led to the US levelling the score, Robinson dominated play; he secured two turnovers of his own, and scored eight tries, including two superlative solo runs, to break American spirits.
“It’s still sinking in,” said Robinson. He was speaking after being at the heart of some raucous celebrations post-match and also at the centre of a large amount of international media attention, following a result that shook up the international order in the sport formerly known as Murderball. “The way that we’ve been together as a squad for the past four or five years has been building towards this.
“We worked so hard during the pandemic at home and away at training camps. We came back and put everything into practice that we’ve been learning. We knew that we were building something special and we’ve come here and put it all on show and come away as Paralympic champions. I think we knew that the spirit within ourselves was here. One of the things we’ve got on our canvas as a squad is ‘relentless’. We kind of showed that today in that we never gave up and went to the final buzzer.”
The dynamic of wheelchair rugby is similar to basketball with regular scoring from one end to the other. A turnover is crucial and Great Britain earned their first with the score at 1-1. With the ball in British hands Roberts played in Aaron Phipps, the third key figure in the side, to land a crucial shift in momentum. At 7-5 Roberts was in again to seize possession and complete a second turnover. GB led 15-12 at the first break.
A hit on Robinson at the start of the second quarter got the US a turnover back and it was here that Aoki started to have his influence. With the US sitting deep in defence and bursting forward in packs when attacking, Aoki was the player with the vision to make the plays, or alternatively, weave his way into the key to score himself.
An incredible Hail Mary-style try in the last seconds of the second quarter, with Aoki converting, brought the scores to 26-24 in GB’s favour at half-time. With the US restarting play the gap went down to one and another turnover on Phipps gave the US the chance, at least in sequence, to level. But at this crucial juncture, about the point when the US had seized momentum in this fixture in the group stages, Britain held firm. Even a one-minute sin bin for Robinson didn’t allow the US to take the lead.
In the fourth, Robinson was knocked over and the score was 37-37. Then, perhaps auspiciously, the ball burst. A new one was thrown on and simultaneously Robinson burst into life, sacking America’s Joseph Delagrave for a turnover before finding a way to hit Roberts, who then found Ryan Cowling for a crucial score.
Wheelchair rugby is a sport that levels out a lot of differences between competitors, with great differences in the level of disability between players in the same team. It is also open to mixed gender selection with GB’s Kylie Grimes becoming the first woman to win a gold in the competition on Sunday.
“I’d love more women in my sport,” she said. “Women can match the men. It’s about tactics, skills, using the brain, using the top two inches when you need it under pressure. You know, women are good for certain things, too. There is a lot of calm within us. The men have their testosterone flying around everywhere, the big hits – but it is always about that. I kept telling the boys to believe, and really feel it as we have got this. If I can get more women involved as well then the more merrier, I would be delighted.”
It’s a sport that was deprived of all UK Sport funding just five years ago, after the team recorded a fifth-place finish in Rio (no European nation had ever won gold in the sport before). An appeal to overturn the decision was rejected too although some emergency funding was granted late in the Games cycle. Grimes said the cut had been a moment of adversity that only occasioned greater determination.
“The boys worked so hard for a few years. I joined later but I had to work for two years without funding, paid for equipment, get to training, have family support. We have had to dig deep. To have the funding now is amazing. To cement that and move forward with the sport is absolutely incredible, mind-blowing, history-making.” It feels like an accurate summary.