Chandler grad to compete in Tokyo games in August SanTan Sun News

Chandler grad to compete in Tokyo games in August

June 6th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
Chandler grad to compete in Tokyo games in August
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By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

A Hamilton High School graduate will be traveling to Tokyo this summer to compete for medals in the upcoming Paralympic Games.

Joe Jackson, 31, is one of 12 players who have been picked to represent the U.S. wheelchair rugby team during the international games this August.

Jackson, who sustained a spinal injury while playing football back in high school, has spent the last few years training for the opportunity to compete on a global stage and is thrilled to finally be given the chance to play in Tokyo.

“This will be my first time going to a paralympic tournament,” Jackson remarked. “I’m pretty happy about that.”

Jackson’s vertebrae snapped during a Hamilton High football practice 16 years ago.

Even though health restrictions might prevent Jackson’s family from being able to cheer him on from the sidelines in Tokyo, the athlete said he’s eager to be playing against a group of elite opponents.

The pandemic hasn’t allowed for many opportunities to travel and scrimmage against other teams, Jackson said, so players have had to find alternative ways to keep their skills sharp.

“We know how to beat ourselves,” Jackson added, “but it’s time to go beat up on the world.”

Wheelchair rugby can look like a brutal sport to the novice spectator.   

Two teams of four crash up against each other as players attempt to get a ball to the opposite side of a basketball court.

Players frantically chase after each other and will regularly slam their wheelchair into an opponent’s in an effort to cut off their path across the goal line.       

Jackson said it can be a fast, intense sport that combines many elements of basketball and hockey.

“It’s like strategic bumper cars,” he said. “You’re going to see athletes doing some things that you probably didn’t think that we could do.”

The action on the court can sometimes escalate to a dangerous level and Jackson has occasionally been on the receiving end of that peril.

When Jackson was training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil, he experienced a shoulder injury on the court that quickly dashed his hopes of joining the national team.

His determination would not be stifled and he quickly got back to playing again, preparing himself for the 2020 games.

In 2016, the U.S. rugby team narrowly lost the gold medal to Australia by only one point.

Jackson had hoped he could help the U.S. secure a win in 2020, but the pandemic canceled those hopes.

When the pandemic initially shut down public facilities last March, Jackson took some time off from training to reconfigure his plans.

There were few places where he could continue training since gyms had been closed, so he was stuck at home trying to find ways to still stay active.

An old football buddy from high school invited Jackson to come up to north Phoenix and train at a private gym while most other facilities across Arizona remained closed.

He developed a new routine of waking up by 4 a.m., getting out the door by 5 a.m., reaching his friend’s gym by 6 a.m. so he could train for an hour, then rushing to get back home by 8 a.m.

Jackson was eventually able to get back into his familiar stomping ground, Ability 360 in central Phoenix, and returned to training on his usual court.

The pandemic has introduced some inconvenient circumstances to athletes, Jackson said, but it’s nothing they can’t handle or adapt themselves around.

“I was always a positive person before,” he noted.

Jackson has managed to preserve his upbeat attitude throughout the many struggles he’s had to overcome in the past.

The trajectory of his life changed dramatically in 2005 after a football injury paralyzed the young athlete and forced him to undergo weeks of intense physical therapy.

Jackson had to relearn how to do basic motor functions with limited mobility and adjust to moving around in a wheelchair. He got into the habit of setting small goals for himself and gradually made his body stronger and nimbler.

Jackson was able to return to Hamilton High within a few months and managed to graduate with his class in 2007.

Despite his ability to quickly carry on with his life after the accident, Jackson said his injury has made him more contemplative, appreciative and aware of his own vulnerabilities.

“We’re definitely not invincible,” he said. “You think you are until something crazy happens.”

During his recovery process, Jackson discovered wheelchair rugby after watching “Murderball,” a documentary profiling athletes with dreams of competing in the 2004 Paralympic Games.

Jackson said the film inspired him to explore athletics for individuals living with disabilities and began to immerse himself in the world of rugby.

The camaraderie he found on the rugby court among his new teammates was reminiscent of how Jackson felt on Hamilton’s football fields – it felt again like he was contributing to singular goal among a group of equals.   

“It’s bigger than yourself,” Jackson said. “You’re a team. It’s not really about one person.”

But the sport is not just about scoring points and medals.

Jackson said there’s a therapeutic effect to being around a group of players who have felt the challenges of living with a disability. His rugby team almost serves as a support group, Jackson said, that can offer helpful advice when the athlete is in need of it.

In between his rugby training, Jackson has found time to start a local foundation that awards sporting equipment and scuba diving lessons to young people recovering from spinal cord injuries.

Jackson said he hopes his journey can inspire anyone struggling through a setback in their lives. Even when it feels like there’s no point in having hope, he said, there’s always a reason to imagine the impossible.     

“I started from the bottom and finally got right to the top,” Jackson added. “We’ll find out in Tokyo how far we can go.” 

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