“We’re going to spend the whole summer together and when you do that, that’s where the bonding begins and you become family.”
The USA Wheelchair Rugby team oozes a kind of relaxed self-confidence that should not be confused with arrogance.
They know they are good, but they also know that the other teams are also strong.
Their secret? Hard work, dedication and an emphasis on the team, rather than individual star players.
Whilst many of the world’s top Wheelchair Rugby teams have begun to shape their squads around fast, high-function players, who dominate the goal line, the USA - the world number one - are conspicuous by their absence of 3.5-point players.
The closest they have is 3-pointer Chuck Aoki, a dominant ball handler, who plays great defence. But the team never relies on him in the same way as Australia’s Ryley Batt or Chris Bond, and Great Britain with Aaron Phipps.
The US national squad will meet for the first training camp this year on Thursday (3 May). James Gumbert, known to the team as Coach Gumbie, is impressed by the athleticism he has seen in the players during the club season, but the challenge this weekend will be to start to turn great athletes into a great team.
Playing as a team
“We would love to have one [3.5 player],” admitted Gumbert. “But I think we accomplish a lot with what we have.
“Our strength is with our 2s. We have eight 2s on our USA side,” said Gumbert, who highly values more experienced team members like Andy Cohn, Will Groulx (both 2-pointers) and Scott Hogsett (1-point player) – all of whom played at the last two Paralympics.
Gumbert says that these older players are able to lift the younger, faster athletes to make them better team-players, as opposed to dominant ones. Gumbert boasts that while other teams rely on one goal-scorer, he often gives his whole bench match time.
The depth of the US bench, as well as their unity are two key factors in their success – since Gumbert became coach in 2005 they have played over 70 games and only lost two friendlies. This unity will be cultivated over the coming month to warrior-like proportions.
“We’re going to spend the whole summer together and when you do that, that’s where the bonding begins and you become family,” said veteran player Scott Hogsett. “When you become family, you don’t want to lose for the other guys on the team. You look to the guy to the right and left and you’re like, I wanna win for that person.
“That’s something I’ve noticed always happens leading up to the Games.”
The other key to USA’s success is that they work hard and never get complacent about the achievements of the past.
Preparation is key
Gumbert puts a lot of emphasis on video footage. Although the team was not there, they have already watched the games from the London 2012 test event in April with Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Sweden. And Gumbert will also ensure that the Australia-Japan game on Friday 4 May is video taped for the team to watch.
“Honestly, really a couple of days after Beijing ended, most of our US players were already thinking about London,” said Andy Cohn, who over the coming months will hardly get to see his wife and twins.
“We all realize that it’s going to take that time commitment and that hard work to try to get the goal we want to get.”
At each practice, players try to push each other harder than any opposing team could. It is this level of preparation that gives the team their confidence.
“Our expectation when we go to an international event is to win the whole thing, honestly,” said Cohn. “Our expectation for London is to win a gold medal. We don’t think that’s going to be easy or guaranteed. It’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
Don’t get complacent
Cohn, like his teammate Scott Hogsett is still able to remember the last time USA did not make it to the top of the podium at the Athens 2004 Paralympics, and this experience is what keeps the team grounded, especially in pressured situations.
“I still remember that feeling of losing and I kind of try to relay that message of how that felt and how awful that feeling is,” said Hogsett.
“At times – I’m not going to lie – there’ve been players that have just thought that the US was going to automatically win, because we always win. But it’s really not that easy and you need players like Will, Andy and myself to let them know what it’s like to lose.”
After Ryley Batt won the London test event tournament, he said, “I hope the USA are scared [of playing against us]. I know I would be. It's definitely possible for us to win gold.”
Most of the team seem to have heard about these comments, but if anything these kinds of challenges will throw the US team into full-on battle mode.
“For most of us, especially the more experienced players on the team, we viewed that more as a motivator than anything,” Will Groulx said. “We looked at it as a challenge, kind of him throwing down the gauntlet to us and I know I personally have never backed out of a challenge before.
“I’m going to use it as a motivator to train that much harder and hopefully use that as a tool to motivate all of my team mates as well.”
USA and Australia may meet next at the Canada Cup held from 18-23 June. The event will be extremely important for all teams to suss out their main rivals before the London Games.