Road to Paris: The 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Paris are less than a year away, and athletes around the world are gearing up to go for the gold—including AA+PI athletes throughout the United States. Normally we’re all about shirking the unrealistic expectations put on our community to excel, but as we gear up for next year’s summer games, we are here to celebrate the outstanding AA+PI athletes getting ready to compete for their country. Read on to learn more about their road to Paris!
Chuck Aoki attended his first wheelchair rugby practice at 15. Now at 32, the Minneapolis native has three Paralympic Games—along with three Paralympic medals (one bronze and two silvers)—under his belt, and has his sights set on the 2024 games in Paris next summer.
As a veteran in his sport, Aoki now has teammates who have been alive as long as he’s been playing. He may not always understand the lingo of his Gen Z team members, but he does take his role as a leader seriously, for good reason: he’s been where they are. “I didn't really have a lot of role models who looked like me growing up. There weren’t a lot of athletes that I knew of who were Paralympians,” he says. “So if I can do that within our team and pass along my knowledge, my hope is that I can do that.”
Aoki, now living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also takes on this role beyond his sport by using his platform on social media to talk about living with disability, and raise the visibility of his community.
I recently spoke with Aoki about how sport helped him accept being in a wheelchair, how special his trip to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games was as an athlete with Japanese ancestry, and the importance of not giving up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Samantha Pak: How did you first get into wheelchair rugby? You started with basketball first, right?
Chuck Aoki: That's correct. I grew up playing basketball ever since I was about 7 years old and used a wheelchair full-time since I was about 10—on and off starting at 6 though.
In 2005, a documentary by the name of Murderball came out, which was the former name of wheelchair rugby. When I saw it, boys were smashing each other, knocking each other around, and they're talking trash as well. I was like, “That looks amazing. I want to play that sport.” I was 15 at the time and after some back and forth with my parents, they let me go to a practice. I showed up, and I got beat up for basically two hours straight, and at the end of it, I’d fallen in love.
SP: What was it about wheelchair rugby that caught your interest?
CA: It's really two things. One is the physicality. I really do enjoy the sport and the way it's played. There's really nothing else like it when you use a wheelchair.
But the second reason, probably really why I have just fully embraced and fallen in love with it, is the community. It's unique in that to be eligible for it, you actually have to be impaired in at least three limbs and most people are impaired in four limbs.
Wheelchair basketball, all you need is a lower limb impairment of some kind and that could be, I say, “as little” as missing a foot. But relatively speaking, missing a foot is a lot different than a substantial spinal cord injury. In basketball, I was one of the only people who had hand impairments. I showed up in rugby and pretty much everybody had those same hand impairments and really went through the same kind of daily life challenges. It was the first time I was like, “Oh wow, these people are really like me.” It really was where I finally fit in and really felt like I belonged.
SP: You mentioned you started using a wheelchair full time at 10. You were also playing sports before that, but you were in and out of a wheelchair off and on. What was that like for you and your family to figure out?
CA: I was a fairly normal kid, but clearly something wasn't quite right. I have a very rare genetic disorder so it wasn't something that was very obvious. I grew up playing sports—baseball, soccer—but I would get really tired and would actually injure my legs.
I started using the wheelchair full-time because my doctors said, “You still have some function left in your legs. We want to preserve that.” Thank goodness they did because that's made my life much easier. But at the time, it really felt like a door was being shut on me. It's really tough as a kid to hear, “Nope, this is not something you can do ever.” But all credit to my parents, who said, “Well, this is an active kid, and we're gonna find ways for him to be active.”
SP: Going back to rugby. When did you realize, “Oh, I can go for the Olympics or other big international competitions?”
CA: I realized it pretty quickly. Rugby took all the things I was really good at from basketball, which was being fast, turning defense and stuff, and it eliminated completely the one thing I was bad at: shooting the basketball. It was a perfect sport for me in a lot of ways. It clicked pretty quickly.
SP: When was your first Paralympics? And how was that experience?
CA: It was amazing. The 2012 London Paralympics really set the standard that has yet to be matched since, in terms of just the promotion they did, the TV coverage. The stadiums were packed. The fans were incredible. It was the first time that I was in this global village of athletes from all over the world.
I'll never forget: We landed in London, we're on the bus to go to the village and there was a big billboard that said, “Thanks for the warm up,” in reference to the Olympics and Paralympics (which always come after). Our very first game was against Great Britain in Great Britain, and of course they love rugby there. It was a sold out crowd, and it was literally so loud, you couldn't hear someone a foot away from you. I've never experienced sound like that on the court.
SP: How did you guys do in 2012?
CA: We took bronze, which was pretty disappointing for what our goals were. We came in ranked number one and lost in the semifinal. We subsequently won silver in Rio and silver in Tokyo as well.
SP: How were your other Paralympic experiences in Rio and Tokyo?
CA: We were thankful we made it to Rio. Essentially, the Brazilian government was running out of money. They were really struggling and it took a lot to make the ends meet to have the (Paralympic) games happen. But the Brazilian people were incredible. They were so excited, so passionate. It really was a special thing to be a part of.
Tokyo was a little weird because those were the COVID games. We had a stadium that sat probably 10,000 people and there were maybe maybe 300, 400 people in there total. I actually personally went through some pretty serious health challenges that year, so the fact that I physically made it to the games and was able to compete was really wonderful.
SP: How was it preparing for Tokyo, not knowing whether or not the games would be held?
CA: When it was indefinitely delayed, there was definitely this period of probably two, three, four months where it was hard to motivate yourself because as far as you knew they were going to be canceled. Once it was announced that the games would be happening, but delayed it was like, “Okay, let's try and gear up for this.” And then whole new stressors came on board. How do we navigate these things safely? Our athletes are all people with spinal cord injuries. They're more susceptible to COVID.
That was also the summer of George Floyd. And coming from Minneapolis, lots of emotions of watching a struggle that I believed in a lot, but also watching a place that I grew up in and call home, really suffering was also challenging.
SP: But also as Asian Americans, our community was also being targeted because of the pandemic. What was it like for you to navigate that, being an Asian American as well, and wanting to represent this country?
CA: To be honest, my Asian identity was not something I was particularly strongly in touch with prior to the pandemic. My dad grew up in the ‘70s. His parents were in the internment camps—pretty much my dad's entire family was. So he grew up in a time when he was really, unfortunately, badly bullied for being Asian. So culturally, we lost quite a bit of what it meant to be Japanese American as a result.
Then COVID came around and I remember when the Stop Asian Hate stuff was going on, I saw one of the victims of an attack and it really struck me that it could have been my dad. That could have been my grandma. It made me realize that this is something I need to understand better. What does it mean to be an Asian American athlete—and one with a disability?
My grandparents were in the internment camps in World War II, and then in Tokyo, I was named one of the flag bearers for Team USA. I've always found it to be such an interesting dynamic that speaks to our country: The fact that the grandson of someone who was put in literal prison by this country was able to represent the country at the highest stage.
SP: Once you got to Tokyo—you're Japanese American, the Olympics are in Japan, and you're representing America—what was that experience like, that full circle moment?
CA: It was too bad it was during COVID. I really wanted to spend a lot of time in Japan. Tokyo was special. Japanese fans always have a certain affection for me, as a Japanese American. Japan is one of our top rivals but I always get lots of cheers for my name. My dad and my brother really wanted to come and obviously, they couldn't. It's a bummer, but it was cool to be there and be like, “Wow, this is where we're from historically.”
SP: How is training for Paris going?
CA: It's going well. We actually went through quite a few changes, post Tokyo. We have a new coach; we have quite a few new athletes on the team. It's a lot of positive change. We've actually got our first female athlete, who I think has a really good chance of making the Paralympics. If she makes it, she’ll be the first-ever female U.S. Paralympian in the sport of wheelchair rugby.
SP: On your social media, you talk a lot about demystifying things about disability. I like the video where you wash your hands and then immediately have to roll your wheels again. You're like, “What's the point?” How do you think social media has played a role in disability visibility?
CA: I think it's been great really, by and large. I discover new people every day, who are disabled creators, talking openly about their disability and what they go through, and their challenges—but also just out there being fantastic athletes, or models, or speakers, or whatever. It's incredible. I try to introduce people to Paralympics and talk about sport, and approach things, like you alluded to, in a humorous way.
Sometimes things are frustrating. Sometimes things are funny. And that's okay. We're human beings who have human experiences that just happen to be with our ability level sometimes.
SP: What would it have been like for you as a kid if you had someone like you doing videos and everything?
CA: I hope that would have been supportive and exciting. I think it would have been great to look and see someone who looks like you and give you role models—also someone who's just going through the same stuff.
Disability can be a really isolating experience. You feel like you're the only one dealing with that challenge. We're all individuals, but there's also a lot of similarities across people who have gone through disability. Hopefully, there can be some comfort taken from that.
SP: Now that you're going for your fourth Paralympics, you've competed nationally, internationally—looking back to that kid who didn't want to bring his wheelchair to school, what would you say to him?
CA: It gets better. It really does. It gets better if you keep your head forward and you keep working. It's okay to be sad. It's okay to be frustrated with these things. It's okay to experience these emotions, but what is not okay to do is give up and just say, “Alright, forget it. I'm not even going to try.”
That is tough. I had times when I wanted to give up. I wanted to quit and not bother with it. But I think that it's really important that you find something that you can pursue. It doesn't have to be sports. It can be anything.
Published on November 8, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.