The Elite Eight
By: Bill Renje
As Team USA wheelchair rugby looks to capture gold medal glory at the Rio Paralympics, a long time has passed since the sport debuted as a Paralympic event 20 years ago in Atlanta. For those of us who lived that experience, some of the memories have dulled over time, with other memories forever live ingrained in our minds.
What’s interesting for all of us are the memories that have lasted and stood the test of time. Those we cherish the most are the overall experience of being a Paralympian, and ultimately a gold medalist. While the details of the games themselves have faded, many poignant off the court moments remain.
I don’t think anyone of us knew ahead of time what to expect. All of us had played in big games – either at the national or international level – but this was the first time our sport would be in the Paralympics, in our home country.
While we were amped up to play rugby, there wasn’t a doubt anywhere that we’d win gold. The rest of the world would eventually catch up to USA wheelchair rugby, but not in 1996.
We had the best players in the world at every classification. Even after we lost our 2.5 Mike Wyatt due to a medical declassification, we still were heavy favorites from the time the eight-man roster was selected in April, four months prior to the Atlanta Games, after a grueling four-day tryout at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
"The thing I remember most about those tryouts was how big they were,” said 1.0 Dave Ceruti. “It was the largest attendance of a tryout of USA Rugby - even to this day. Everybody wanted to be a part of that first Paralympic team. And those where the longest days of rugby I'd ever play in my whole career, early mornings until late night for four days"
From tryouts through the summer, there was a constant euphoria we all felt, a euphoria that would culminate in the 10-day Paralympics in late August. The rugby tournament didn’t take place until the second week of Paralympics. So we’d train in the morning, and be tourists in the afternoons and evenings.
I think the first indication for all of us that this would be different, far better than we ever dreamed or imagined, was when we’d venture out sight-seeing into Atlanta or going to watch other sports at the different venues. Between the wheelchairs we sat in, and the USA gear we wore, everybody knew who we were everywhere we went, and it was electric. People stopping us on the streets, in restaurants, in the venues asking for autographs and to have their pictures taking with us.
Joe Soares was our 3.5, our go-to guy and, along with 2.0 Dave Gould, our most seasoned veteran.
“Feeling like a rock star through the whole experience, and after the gold medal game with hundreds of (people) all around you wanting an autograph was something I’ll never forget,” said Soares
To that point, I don’t think any of us had ever signed an autograph or had strangers that wanted to take their picture with us. That kind of celebrity atmosphere continued to pick up speed throughout the games. I remember soaking it all in as a once in a lifetime experience. But I also remember being thankful that I didn’t live in a world of permanent celebrity where you can lose focus with all the trappings of success all around you. But for those 10 days, it was a glorious time.
What we all witnessed at Opening ceremonies was nothing short of amazing. Some of us thought, including myself, that we’d be marching into a largely vacant Olympic Stadium with several hundred family members and close friends in attendance. But as we lined up, you could see the people just keep coming, for hours. As we marched in, three across, you couldn’t hear the guy next to you over the chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
“The march to opening ceremonies was incredible,” said .5 Eddie Crouch. “As we wound down the old Fulton County Stadium to the streets and on the way to the Olympic Stadium, it was wall-to-wall people and deafening. I did not expect a reception like that at all. I remember very little of opening ceremonies themselves but the entrance will always stay with me.”
Atlanta Metro College would play host to the wheelchair rugby games complete with a sound system, public address announcer, and music giving the games the feel of an NBA-like atmosphere. All of which again was something none of us had ever experienced.
The gold medal game came down to old-time rivals, Canada and the USA. Canada was where the sport was invented, but the US was where it went to another level. Although the Canadians fought hard, we just had too much, winning 37-30. Once again, the most cherished memories was the raucous pro-USA crowd that seemed to be on their feet from the time we entered the gym, until we were awarded our gold medals. All of us took time to soak in the jubilation.
"During the gold medal game (head coach Terry Vinyard) called a timeout in the 4th quarter,” Ceruti said. “I was one of the players on the court. We had a comfortable lead. We knew we were going to win at that point and the crowd did too; so everyone was cheering and it was loud. When we got to the huddle, we were all looking at Terry and he just said 'enjoy this guys'. So we just sat there for the full minute listening to the crowd, no one said a thing, what a great feeling that was!"
In the end, as with all sports, while you appreciate the opportunity to compete and, if you’re blessed, win at a high level, what you cherish are the moments that few will experience in their lifetimes.
“At times it seems like it could have taken place yesterday and other times it seems a lifetime ago,” recalled Gould. “What is always fresh in my mind is the enormity of the atmosphere, the competition at its highest level, the crowd appreciating every second of play and the ultimate pride of having USA on your jersey knowing you are playing for something far greater than yourself.
“It all seems surreal now but it still comes up now and then in conversation and it’s cool to reflect back and know you have been a part of something that few people will ever experience,” added Crouch. For head coach Terry Vinyard, winning gold was also a time for quiet reflection in remembering both his grandmother who had passed away during tryouts, and his father who had passed away a decade before Atlanta. “When I thought back to Colorado Springs and the tryouts, I remember Patti Long approaching me with a note and telling me my Grandmother had died before reading the note with my Mom's contact,” said Vinyard. “I was so focused that I didn't let any emotions out until the funeral where I cried noticeably uncontrollably. When we won the Gold in front of that crowd that included my mother seeing her first rugby games ever, I couldn't help but think how proud my father would have been. I'm sure he would have been happy that I was doing something I loved to do with such a passion.”
1996 TEAM USA
.5 Eddie Crouch
1.0 Dave Ceruti
1.5 Bill Renje
2.0 Dave Gould
2.5 Mike Wyatt
3.0 Brad Updegrove
3.5 Joe Soares
Head coach – Terry Vinyard
Asst coach – Reggie Richner
Team Manager – Judy Pfeister
Team Nurse – Cathy Nelligan