In January, Chuck Aoki traveled to Birmingham to train for his third Paralympic Games. After winning a bronze medal in 2012 and snagging silver four years later, the emotional leader of the veteran US wheelchair rugby team thought the Tokyo Games would represent his last, and perhaps best, chance. to get hold of an elusive gold.
But there, everything fell apart: after three days of practice, Aoki was not feeling well, and the night before his return trip he woke up covered in sweat, his body convulsing with chills. I couldn’t stop throwing up.
He rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered a serious infection in his right knee – so bad, in fact, that Aoki spent most of February in a Birmingham hospital.
Unfortunately, infections are a common part of Paralympic existence. But this was worse: more painful, more extreme. Doctors operated five times to try to clear the infection. They sent him home to Kerrville, Texas, where he had spent the pandemic with his girlfriend, Liz Gregory. But after 10 days of cautious optimism, the knee swelled again. Another MRI revealed that the infection had moved up his tibia to his femur; it would require another four hour operation.
When March turned into April, Aoki, now 30, began to worry. Sitting in the hospital, he asked himself, “Will I be able to compete?”
Growing up in Minneapolis, Aoki didn’t discover his disability, a genetic condition known as type II hereditary sensory and autonomic neuropathies, until he was 10 years old. The signs had appeared before, remember: when other little kids started taking their first steps, he “walked really weird and on my knees.” His parents, Andrew Aoki and Jennifer Nelson, had lingering concerns and took Chuck in for a nerve biopsy, which uncovered the rare condition. Aoki could feel little to no sensation beyond his elbows and knees. That explains why, after breaking the femur in his left leg at age 6, he still played basketball for weeks, sustaining additional injuries. I couldn’t feel the pain. Aoki began using a wheelchair and spent what felt like half his life in hospitals, undergoing scans, exams, and a seemingly endless list of tests. Eventually, Chuck’s parents took him to what is now the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis.
There, sports soon became an obsession, despite the downsides: because Aoki can’t feel under his elbows, he tended to get his hands caught in the worst places while playing. The cuts often led to bone infections, which meant that most of his fingers had to be at least partially amputated.
In 2005, while in the hospital for treatment for another infection, Jennifer suggested they watch a documentary about the Paralympic Games, a movie, and a life-changing moment. Murderball, a surprisingly violent and expertly crafted movie about wheelchair rugby, is a powerful statement about disabled athletes that inspired Aoki.
“I’d love to play that,” he told his mother, who shook her head before finally releasing. He didn’t just want to play. I wanted to hit, fly, absorb blows and receive them.
To be eligible for Paralympic wheelchair rugby, participants must have a disability in at least three limbs. Without those partially severed fingers, Aoki would not have classified or identified as much as he did with his teammates. Like him, many used their teeth to put on gloves. Like him, many had diminished hand function. But they were more innovative. “It was this whole new world that opened up to me,” Aoki says.
In 2007, Aoki joined a club team in Minneapolis and immediately demonstrated his aptitude and skill. Aoki joined the national team in 2009 when he was still a senior in high school,
becoming, at 17, the second youngest member in its history. A year later, he helped the United States win gold at the Vancouver world championships. In ’12, Aoki made the Paralympic team for the first time. Four years after that, he was made captain.
For a team with an older core, the Tokyo Games represent the last and best chance to try to end a title drought. A dominant force in the 1990s, the United States has not won gold in the Paralympics or the world since that 2010 victory. Top-ranked Australia stands in the way, along with Japan and Great Britain. But while Aoki desperately wants to hang a gold medal around his neck, he’s playing in much more than one event.
Aoki’s infection was finally cured in time for him to embark on his search for gold in Tokyo. That quest is for the sports-obsessed kid who needed a wheelchair but still desperately wanted to compete.
Ultimately, it’s about representation. And Aoki, the unlikely wheelchair Paralympian whose great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Japan, represents a lot. What’s beautiful is how his two goals, winning gold and being visible as a Japanese-American during a wave of discrimination and violence against Asian-Americans, work together. The better the ending, the wider Chuck Aoki’s platform will be. The broader your platform, the more changes you can make.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.