Growing up in Minneapolis in the ’90s, Chuck Aoki idolized Kevin Garnett, Randy Moss, and Kirby Puckett. While he loved everything they meant to the Twin Cities, there wasn’t an athlete who looked like him that he could look up to. That’s exactly what propelled him to become that athlete.

This summer, Aoki will be competing in his fourth Paralympic Games in Paris. It’s a feat he couldn’t have foreseen when he attended his first wheelchair rugby practice at 15. Along with going for gold to accompany his bronze, and two silver medals, the 32-year-old uses his platform to highlight and raise the visibility of those living with disabilities.

During a break in between training, Chuck Aoki spoke with Muscle & Fitness on the importance of the years-long work that goes into just five days of competition during the Olympics, not getting ahead of yourself with training and the importance of becoming an ambassador for the future generations of para-athletes.

The Introduction of ‘Murderball’

Basketball was the first sport that Chuck Aoki played and he enjoyed everything about it. In 2005, the sports documentary Murderball was released. The film highlighted the U.S. quad rugby and not only showcased the full-contact and physical nature of the sport but also focused on the para-athletes and their pursuit of the 2004 Paralympic Games. It was this film that set Aoki on his current course.

“I saw this sport where guys were talking trash, smashing into each other and they were going out partying after,” he said. “I wanted to play that sport.”

As faith would have it, there would be a practice going on in Minnesota and Aoki’s parents had taken him to see Murderball up close. Eventually, Aoki would be invited to play against grown men who had been college athletes. He was overmatched and pushed around while learning the rules and flow of the game. This could have been a deterrent for any ambitious kid, but Chuck Aoki recalls nothing up to that point being as fun or making him feel as energized as rugby.

Small Gains Leads to Huge Podium Finishes

At this point of training, it’s all about the marginal gains that separate which medal is placed around your neck. Birmingham, AL, is the meeting ground for the team and thanks to his partnership with Delta, Aoki is always accommodated for his travels. Most of the work now is going over lineups and in-game strategies. Training camps are a week straight of two-a-days with film sessions at night. Aoki says this is still a pivotal time because you can either be getting a little bit better or a little bit worse. Attention to detail is very valuable.

The average weight of a manual wheelchair can be anywhere from 15-40 pounds while the average weight of a rugby wheelchair is about 80 pounds. Getting the body used to being quick, explosive, and powerful in a short amount of distance is very critical.

Chuck Aoki is up at six in the morning and he’s on his way to the track or gym. Rugby is played on a 94-foot court and games can last up to two hours. A priority is placed on strength, explosion, and conditioning. There is the usual work on the chest, triceps, shoulders, and biceps, along with tons of sprints for good measure. But, a lot of emphasis is placed on the back, and for good reason.

“If those muscles aren’t as strong, you get into a situation where guys crash and burn after 30 minutes because their back muscles are just exhausted,” Aoki said. “A weak back also makes you more liable to injury.”

Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself

There is so much time spent training, traveling, and mentally preparing for the games that it’s easy to forget how quickly they go by. For Aoki and Team USA, it’s five days, which is a standard work week. As he’s gotten older, Aoki has learned to be more in the moment, enjoy the process and not set his focus too far ahead. He can still remember waking up in Tokyo like it was yesterday and the years seem to fly by the older we get.

For any athlete in any sport, each year, the competition gets younger and faster. As we get closer to another Paralympic Games, the closer the Minnesota native is to his last one. It’s a realization that all athletes will have to accept. Aoki accepts this fact and also sees the unique opportunity he has to continue to help the next generation of para-athletes.

“I know that there will come someday when I can’t compete at this level,” he said. “My focus is let’s enjoy every day and moment that you can. Do your part and make sure things are better for the next generation. So, the things that you struggled with and went through, the next generation won’t have to.”


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Being an Ambassador for Future Para Athletes

We live in an age where children with disabilities can open an app, or get online and follow athletes who look just like them. These are athletes who are traveling the world, winning medals, and competing against athletes from virtually every country on the planet.

\This was a level of exposure that Aoki didn’t have as a kid. While everything he’s accomplished and the medals he’s won has been a dream come true, he says what’s more important is being someone children can look to as a source of inspiration and not letting having a disability be a limitation on how far you can go.

“You can become disabled at any point in your life,” Aoki says.”I believe that when you get a platform, you have a responsibility to try to use it in some positive way. It doesn’t mean you have to go off and be everything to all people but at least within my realm, I try to be that voice for disabled folks and help the community at large learn about what we’ve got going on so that the next generation of athletes is supported right from the get-go.”

Follow Chuck on Instagram @chuckaoki