28 Aug 2020

Wheel Blacks prepare for Japan's Paralympic Games

From Checkpoint, 6:31 pm on 28 August 2020

Resilience has been a valuable commodity over the past six months and for the New Zealand wheelchair rugby community, there's been no shortage of positivity and ability to get through in the unprecedented circumstances created by Covid-19.

They're qualities the national team are drawing on as they work towards next year's Paralympic Games in Japan.

Covid-19 might've put the brakes on the Wheel Blacks' Paralympic preparations, but they won't let it bring them to a halt.

Cody Everson said he and his team-mates have a perspective which allows them to roll with the punches presented by a global pandemic. 

"For a lot of us guys in chairs, we've gone through an accident and we've spent a lot of time in hospital so we're used to, in a way, not something getting taken away from us, but being isolated and having to take a step back from life in a way."

The team was able to make the most of the days free of community transmission - but the resurgence of Covid means, after training together for the first time six months, squad members are on their own again.

The impact of that will be limited, with veteran squad member Robbie Hewitt saying there's been a lot of hard work done by strength and conditioning coach Yann Roux.

"He's rejigged our programmes to suit the individual. He's asked what resources we've had and we've just worked around that because obviously not being able to get to the gym or get to see the fellas and push yourself... we can just use a whole lot of technology and just be really resourceful."

That solo training will continue until the country is back to level one.

The risks at any level above that are too high, with around half the squad having compromised respiratory systems because of a lack of core muscle function.

Coach Greg Mitchell said the uncertainty created by Covid means staying as nimble as possible.

"It's a case of as part of the staff and coach is to plan to know you've got a plan B because people don't want to turn up and go 'oh what do we do now?' they want to know that there's things there.

"So there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that we've got those A's, B's and C's all set up and ready to go."

It's a level of planning driven by the fact the Tokyo Paralympics are now less than a year away.

And also by their determination to ensure the Wheel Blacks first appearance at the Games since 2008 is a successful one.

"Definitely out there to win games, we're not going to make up numbers, no one does," Mitchell said.

"If you go to the Paralympics to make up numbers - find a new sport."

The Games were delayed until 2021 because of the pandemic and Cody Everson said the Wheel Blacks are happy to wait.

"We're such a young team so, another year for us is amazing, it's going to give us the best opportunity to go to paras and not take part, you know, compete, and that's the main goal - we want to compete with these big teams."

Greg Mitchell says performing well includes not holding anything back when it comes to the physical side of the sport.

"Too right, it's Tana Umaga all over it 'it's not tiddlywinks out here'. 

"Part of the job of the game is to smash people out of their chair, you don't go in there and timidly touch someone, you need to go out there and physically impose yourself on them and we have guys on our team that that's their job - they're big guys and they hit hard."

By doing just that, the current players hope they will show the Wheel Blacks are heading back to their glory days, when they won gold at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

Robbie Hewitt says the squad are desperate to return the 10th-ranked Kiwi side to the top of the international game.

"Yes we're proud people, we play high performance sport, we're proud of that, we want to achieve great things.

"It's definitely a privilege and sense of pride to not only be able to do it for myself, but my family, the people who support us, the community back home... all that sort of stuff plays a big part."

It can try, but the Wheel Blacks say they won't let Covid-19 keep them from moving forward.