France's wheelchair rugby captain Hivernat eyes spotlight at home Paralympic Games

Jonathan Hivernat led France to the top of the podium at the 2023 Wheelchair Rugby European Championship in Cardiff and is looking to accomplish much more with his team in 2024 26 May 2023
A male wheelchair rugby player smiles on the court.
Hivernat is preparing to make history with his teammates at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.
ⒸBen Evans/Huw Evans Agency
By Ayano Shimizu | The IPC

With less than 500 days to go until the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, the French wheelchair rugby team have their sights set on making history in front of their home crowd. 

The team, led by captain Jonathan Hivernat, became back-to-back European champions in May 2023 and are preparing to capture their first Paralympic medal in the French capital next year.

"Our goal is to be among the best in the world by winning our first medal - to seek the most beautiful medal at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games," Hivernat said.

"As captain, I want to lead this team until the end and enjoy a unique moment that happens only once in our lifetime."

France won the 2023 Wheelchair Rugby European Championships by defeating Great Britain in the final. @Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

Making the dream work

Since finishing sixth out of eight teams at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, the French players have been training together as much as possible to improve teamwork.

They have worked on different aspects of the game, including key attacks as well as their offensive and defensive systems. Outside of the court, the players enjoy each other's company, cracking jokes and playing board games.

"The secret (to the recent success) of our team is how we always think about improving by working together. We play with our heart and all of our energy, we have a French flare that characterises us," the captain said. 

"The attitude of the team is great, we can encourage each other and above all, have a great time together."

Hivernat made his Paralympic debut at Rio 2016 and also competed at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. @Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

Building confidence

France won the 2022 European Championship in Paris by beating reigning Paralympic champions Great Britain in the final. A year later, Hivernat's team defended their title in Cardiff by staging a 55-49 victory over Great Britain.

"It's a unique moment and it's an incredible title. We knew we had the tools and the weapons to get through the tournament, but actually achieving it was an indescribable feeling," Hivernat said.

"I'm proud and honoured that we were able to achieve this," he added. "The best moments from the tournament were returning to the stadium for the final, singing (the French national anthem) La Marseillaise and the medal ceremony."

Hivernat was introduced to wheelchair rugby about 13 years ago. @Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

The victory at the European Championships has become a confidence booster for the French squad ahead of the Paris Games.

"For the team, it builds our ambitions and hopes to perform against other teams in front of our public, our friends and our families. It's historic and we are going to capitalise on the opportunity to challenge the (world's) best."

Love for the sport

Hivernat was introduced to wheelchair rugby about 13 years ago during a demonstration event at the rehabilitation centre where he worked as an intern. He made his Paralympic debut at Rio 2016 where his squad finished seventh. 

France competed in the Paralympic wheelchair rugby tournament for the first time at London 2012.

"I love the contact, the commitment, the strategy, the team spirit, the solidarity and the diversity," Hivernat said of wheelchair rugby.

"It also allows me to enjoy unique moments, both in and outside of sports."

Festival in Paris

With the Games approaching, the captain sees the excitement building in the French capital. There is growing interest by local media as well as spectators. Thousands of people gathered at the Place de la Bastille to attend the Paralympic Day in Paris on 8 October 2022.

Paris 2024 will be the first Paralympic Games in France. The Games will take place between 28 August and 8 September 2024. Around 4,400 Para athletes from around the world will compete across 549 medal events in 22 sports.

Hivernat sees excitement already building in the French capital ahead of the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. @Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

Hivernat expects the wheelchair rugby tournament to be "tighter" than ever.

"The wheelchair rugby tournament at Paris 2024 will be unique. There has never been such a high level of competition," the two-time Paralympian said. 

"It's going to be very interesting to play against other teams and to fully be part of the wheelchair rugby family."

The wheelchair rugby captain also has high hopes for the Paralympic Games. He said the Paris 2024 Games will be a "unique sports festival" that allow Paralympians to "share emotions and memorable moments" with the public and "inspire future generations".

"I expect many things from the Games. I look forward to sharing the legacy of our movement with the French people and advancing our culture around people with disabilities," Hivernat said.