After qualifying for the first time since Beijing 2008, New Zealand’s rugby wheelchair team are looking to mix with the top nations at Paralympic Games
New Zealand is undoubtedly a proud rugby nation. They boast a total of eight World Cups, five Rugby 7’s World Cups and 17 Tri Nations and Rugby Championships between their men’s and women’s senior national teams.
But there is also another national team in the rugby sphere looking to make a name for themselves: The Wheel Blacks.
It’s been 13 years since New Zealand featured in the wheelchair rugby tournament at the Paralympics but their bronze medal win over Republic of Korea at the 2019 Asia-Oceania Championships ensured their return to the world’s greatest sporting stage.
For co-captain Cody Everson qualifying for Tokyo 2020 was a special moment after narrowly missing out on Rio 2016 qualification.
“To have a chance to qualify, I was like, ‘right, we're not going to screw this up’,” he recalled in an interview with Tokyo 2020, “Everyone was super switched on and we stuck to the game plan. We were super confident.
“Being co-captain as well was pretty cool knowing that we haven't qualified since 2008. I think a few guys were a bit emotional because they wanted it for so long and they were at the end of the career and now they can finally say that they're going to be a Paralympian.”
It was even more encouraging considering the youthfulness of the team.
“There was also a bit of relief because we knew we were a good team, but we also know we were a young team,” Everson said before adding, “The main focus was going to be 2024 when we should be at the top of our game, everyone should have played together enough… so Tokyo was realistic for us but we knew as well that we're building.
“Who knows. We’re the dark horses.”
© Wheel Blacks
Forging a path from an All Blacks dream
Growing up in Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, Everson had dreams of becoming an All Black one day.
“I think growing up for everyone, especially every boy who plays rugby, [it] was the kind of the dream. You'd watch the games, and you'd do the Haka in front of the TV. So definitely for me, it was like always wanting to be an All Black.”
But it was while playing his favourite game that he sustained a neck injury in a tackle which resulted in the then 15-year-old becoming tetraplegic, meaning all his limbs were affected by paralysis.
After spending two weeks in the ICU, he went into the spinal unit where he was told he wouldn't walk again. While Everson admits there was a bit of denial upon hearing the news, he took it surprisingly well.
“I'd lost function in my fingers and I couldn't push my chair. I couldn't really feed myself. I wanted to do all this other stuff and I think that kind of really took away from that I really want to walk. It was more I really want to get back to doing more for myself.”
It was while at the Burwood Spinal Unit, that Everson met Sholto Taylor, a member of the Wheel Blacks, who had been mentoring young patients. Taylor, who was a ray of positivity, was also the one who introduced the Christchurch local to the sport of wheelchair rugby.
While the teenager didn’t think he needed rugby, it was the documentary Murderball, that changed his mind. When playing rugby he was a back, the one scoring all the tries but heading into his first training session things were a bit different.
“I'm a 16-year-old boy and getting beaten by like 40-year-olds,” he laughed, “So it was it was a little bit disheartening, but it was also like I want to get better, I want to beat these guys.
“When I started to notice that I was getting better and quicker, I realised, ‘hey, look, I could be really good at this’. And that's when things started taking shape for me and I began to improve quite rapidly.”
2019 Getty Images
Trying to keep motivated
Everson wasn’t shy to admit the struggles he faced during 2020.
When word started circulating about a possible postponement of the Paralympics, Everson thought the Games might not even go ahead especially qualifying after so long and training for their return, it was disheartening to potentially have that taken away.
Thankfully, it was a postponement and New Zealand, who are now COVID-free, came out of their lockdown relatively smoothly.
So with the Games not for another year, an opportunity popped up. Well, Everson had actually been approached prior to their Paralympic qualification about a surgery which could give him back the use of his hands.
It was an enticing offer, something the wheelchair athlete wanted to try but he didn’t want to jeopardise his chance of making his Paralympic dreams come true, so he pushed back the idea until after Tokyo 2020.
“When it got postponed, I asked the physio and we got onto the surgeons so within a month [I got in] to get the surgery,” said Everson. “After the surgery I couldn't do anything for myself. I got to leave the hospital the next day and I couldn't even transfer out of bed on a sliding board. I couldn't feed myself that night.”
A fortnight later, while things started to get back to normal and he waits to see if the surgery worked, mentally it has been tough.
“It has been tough getting back into training because I've had [such a] long off, and I've missed a tournament and missed out on a lot of trainings,” Everson said.
“So that's probably been the most challenging time for me now, knowing Paralympics is so far away and my mental sort of thing is probably the worst it's ever been.”
While the period away from training has allowed the 23-year-old to focus on other aspects of his life, being able to get back in the mindset to train hasn’t been easy.
“Now it's come to a point where I need to get my mind back into training and it's been really hard because you just don't know. So, I'm really fighting with myself to get back out and do it and get back into training,” he told Tokyo 2020 during an interview in November 2020.
“I think once I built that momentum back up and get to camp in a few weeks time and see everyone, this sort of drive will kick in again.
“It brings excitement back as well. It's good to see everyone and talking about next year and our plans for next year. That's what I'm most looking forward to.”