MARICOPA — A local hero has returned to Maricopa with a shiny piece of hardware and enough memories to last a lifetime.
Wheelchair rugby player Joe Jackson and the rest of the United States national team didn’t quite get what they wanted heading into the Paralympics in Tokyo, but they did leave with a silver medal — not such a bad consolation prize.
Still, just days after their 54-49 loss to Great Britain in the gold medal game, Jackson told PinalCentral it might take some time to fully appreciate what the team accomplished.
“I thought I was over it, but as people kept talking about it I realized I wasn’t,” he said. “It might take a while to reflect and realize that silver ain’t so bad.”
The U.S. team went into the Paralympics expecting to win the gold medal, avenging their one-point loss to Australia in the 2016 Games. In a way, they did, as they defeated Australia 49-42 in the semifinals. They also defeated their fierce rival Canada 58-54 in the group stage.
Having already defeated Great Britain during group play and coming in undefeated, they entered the Aug. 29 game fully of confidence. However, as Jackson put it, Great Britain made some key adjustments between the first matchup and the second, and the U.S. was never able to overcome them, trailing for much of the game.
Despite that, the game remained close until the very end. The U.S. tied up the score with just a couple minutes left, then looked for a turnover for the chance for the win. However, they gave up a critical two points at that spot, and couldn’t recover in time.
So for the second straight Paralympics, the U.S. was on the second platform during the medal presentation, but the experience for Jackson was about much more than what color medal they received.
“Through it all, we have each other’s backs, win or lose,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s more than about the sports. It’s about taking care of each other.”
This was Jackson’s first trip to the Paralympics, so he doesn’t have much to compare it to, but he recognized that the whole experience was different than what the more experienced players were used to. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no fans allowed at the Games, which created an eerie feeling as the best players in the world played in front of nearly empty stands.
“From what I heard from my teammates, there’s no game like the Paralympics because you can’t hear anything but the fans screaming,” Jackson said. “I don’t know what that’s like, but it sounds awesome.”
When they weren’t on the court, the players had to stick to a strict activity plan and generally stay in their bubble so as not to risk COVID spreading among the team. That meant the players couldn’t go to any other games or socialize with athletes from other countries.
The team was split up into apartment suites with six people each, and they stayed close throughout. They were wearing masks whenever outside their room except to eat, and they encountered no health issues.
Among the U.S. contingent, he got to know some of the basketball and volleyball players, and one member of the paracanoe team was actually from his gym at Ability360. He was also happy to have his friend Jim Roberts, the star of Great Britain’s team, on the court with him, as Roberts played with Jackson’s club team in Phoenix in 2016 and 2017.
Despite all this going on, Jackson was able to occasionally stop to appreciate where he was and how big a deal it was just to be there in Japan.
“The first five days were go-go-go,” he said. “Then started thinking, ‘Wow, we’re in Tokyo for the Paralympics.’ I went outside and soaked it all in, watching all the flags waving and the athletes moving around.”
Jackson returned to Maricopa just a couple days after the game, and he plans to take it easy for the next couple months. He said he plans to take it a little easy for a month or so, but then he has to get right back at it. Club ball starts in October, after all, and the annual tryouts to be a part of the national team are in December.
He hopes to be there for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris, and to continue representing Maricopa and the rest of the nation.
“It’s definitely a dream to win a medal and represent your country at the highest level you can,” Jackson said. “It was really cool for people to learn about our sport and support us.”