Australia, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, Sweden and Brazil have all booked their places for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Next month, six teams will compete for the last remaining spots in Rio, when the International Wheelchair Rugby Federation (IWRF) 2016 Paralympic Qualifier Tournament will be held 16-22 April in Paris, France.
Surprisingly among those six teams is the USA, who find themselves in unfamiliar territory after having automatically qualified for every Paralympic Games since the sport’s introduction at Atlanta in 1996.
The USA will start the tournament as favourites, but will need to overcome the host nation, France, who will have plenty of home support, as well as Denmark, New Zealand, Germany and Finland.
USA high-pointer Chuck Aoki said while the team was disappointed by not already being qualified for Rio, there is plenty of excitement within the camp.
“The pressure of knowing that this is our trip to the Paralympics on the line makes it more pressure packed than anything,” Aoki said. “Whether we were the top seed at the qualifier or the last, the pressure is the same.”
Aoki said after the disappointment of falling to Canada in the Toronto 2015 Parapan-American Games last August, there was plenty to like about their performance at the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge that followed in London, Great Britain, in October. That event included a victory against the defending world champion Australia, but saw another loss to Canada in the gold medal match.
“It didn't show up on the scoresheet of course, but I do feel we had individual players make big strides, and I look forward to seeing us build on how we ended 2015,” Aoki said. “We've got to play a strong team game [in Paris].
“Spectacular individual efforts are great, but in order to punch our ticket, we need to play together,” he added. “The other teams in Paris want to qualify for Rio just as badly as we do, so we cannot take anyone lightly.”
It will be Aoki’s first time playing in France, but based on his experiences in Europe, and knowing that France is a massive rugby nation, he has no doubt the host will turn out a huge crowd for the tournament.
“I'm sure it'll be boisterous, loud, and they will do their best to make it a great environment,” Aoki said.
“We don't play European teams that often, so they all bring an element of the unknown to the table for us. New Zealand are also former Paralympic champions, so they certainly know how to win.”
He added that there has been a few changes in the line-ups this season, and it remains to be seen who will comprise the US team at the qualifying tournament.
Despite this, Aoki said the USA will certainly be going in full strength and will have one player making his international debut.
The USA will kick off with qualifying tournament with matches against Germany and New Zealand on the opening day, 16 April.
More information can be found at the IWRF’s website.