RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — There’s a perception that Canada and the United States are still bitter rivals in wheelchair rugby.
The sport was invented by a Canadian, first demonstrated in the 1996 Atlanta Games, and reached mainstream appeal because of a documentary featuring the two countries.
But to Chuck Aoki, of the U.S. team here at the Paralympics, it’s just not that big of a deal anymore.
“Sure there’s a rivalry (with Canada), but I wouldn’t say it’s like ‘Oh my god I want to punch you’ after the game,” said Aoki, following the USA’s 54-44 win over Sweden on Thursday. “I respect the work they’ve put in and how hard they’ve worked to become a phenomenal team.
“Zak Madell is arguably the best the player in the world . . . we can see them in the semifinal or in the gold medal final.”
As fate would have it, the two North American teams will indeed play in one of the semifinals as Canada lost to Australia 63-62 on Friday.
Trevor Hirschfield, co-captain of the Canadian squad, says his team wanted to avoid their so-called rivals and instead have Australia play the Americans, as the Aussies have struggled against them in the past.
“(The rivalry with the U.S) is probably not the same as it was,” said Hirschfield, on Friday. “I think there’s a mutual level of respect, it’s not as back and forth vocally as it once was in the past. With the USA being so close in proximity and their league play, there’s a lot of Canadians who go down and play; there’s a lot of friendships built there.
“(The competition at the Games) is the best it’s ever been. Great Britain took us to overtime, they’re another team that could hold their own in the top four it’s just unfortunate that they got put in a pool with us.”
It’s not just the British as the majority of the games have been competitive including all three that the States played during group play, in particular the one against Japan whom they only beat by one in the final seconds of regulation.
The 2005 film titled Murderball — the nickname for this ferocious sport — follows Canada and the United States ahead of the 2004 Athens Games. There was a tremendous amount of animosity back then, and understandably so as former U.S. star Joe Soares crossed over to the dark side to coach the red and white.
Frankly, the Paralympics have never been dominated by just these two squads. The U.S. and Canada have medaled in multiple games, but so have Australia and New Zealand, so it begs the question whether this rivalry was overhyped to begin with.
“Certainly when we play Canada in Canada it’s hard not to get up, they pack the stands. It’s loud, it’s rowdy, it’s crazy, if you don’t get excited for that then you’re not alive,” Aoki said. “It’s like any team that’s good, you get up for them, you get excited to play against them and you want to win.”
“I think it’s an easy game to get up for,” said Hirshfield. We ended up taking the qualifier for Rio, then we beat (the U.S) again in the BT World Tour and they got the better of us at Canada Cup. It’s been really back and forth between us and it’s going to be a really tight game.”
Tip-off is on Saturday at12:45 pm with the winner moving on to play for gold while the loser is left to play for bronze.