Catching up with paralympian Joe Delagrave

Catching up with paralympian Joe Delagrave

April 5, 2022 0 By Hawkeye Johnson
Written by Kimberly Corrigan

We had a chance to catch up with Joe Delagrave, now Interim Head Coach of the USA Wheelchair Rugby Team. He’s grateful for the independence his handcycle, funded in part by the GoHawkeye Foundation, brings him. 

“Motivated athletes like Joe inspire others to explore the freedom found through adaptive sports,” said founder Hawkeye Johnson. 

Joe Delagrave competing for team USA vs. Japan in wheelchair rugby. Photo courtesy of Joe Delagrave.

“I’ve been an athlete my entire life and grew up playing all kinds of sports. You name it I played it. After my accident I didn’t jump into adaptive sports right away. Being in a wheelchair I didn’t want to see myself in a photo much less a mirror,” Delagrave said. 

“I played college football. Competition and athletics were super important to me, and I never thought adaptive sports could quench that competitive fire and I ended up just getting fat. I was a football player, 6’ 6” 260 pounds solid and I ate like a football player and ballooned up to 285 pounds. So that was the push to get me into doing something recreational in the adaptive space and I ended up finding wheelchair rugby and went to practice and the rest is history,” Delagrave said. 

Delagrave got a handcycle in 2009 and loved it. He was able to ride with his wife and enjoyed it as something he could do with other able-bodied people. When their kids came along, it became an activity he could share with the whole family. 

“I was awesome to be able to just get on it and go,” Delagrave said. “We lived in Arizona for eight years and moved back up to Wisconsin and up here a lot of the biking trails are true trails, not paved paths, and I could barely get around on my old handcycle, going like four miles an hour. It wasn’t fun for anyone to ‘keep up with Joe and go super slow’ so I started researching mountain bike style handcycles,” Delagrave said. 

“Then I started seeing how expensive they were, they’re around $15K,” Delagrave added. Enter the GoHawkeye Foundation. 

Delagrave said, “I started trying to put together grants and GoHawkeye was there and reached out and thankfully along with some other people was able to get the bike last winter. It’s been a full year of riding and it’s been awesome.” 

“Probably my most memorable ride was right after Tokyo, I was able to go jump on a path and clear my head,” Delagrave said. “Being outdoors and being active and in nature has always been something I’ve liked to do and as a family we love going for walks and bike rides. I can also ride in the snow, it does just fine. The bike is something that gives me independence. Any time I can do something that gives me independence and I can do with other able-bodied friends and not feel like I’m holding them back is really important to me. The bike’s ended up being really fun. Other people really get into it, like my wife who rides with me and gets sore more than I do so that’s kinda nice,” chuckled Delagrave. 

Joe, his wife April, and their family. Photo courtesy of Joe Delagrave.

Delagrave is also an inspirational speaker and it’s one of his favorite things to do. When asked how he inspires others facing challenges, he said, “The moral of my story is I could play the blame game. I could blame my buddy that was driving the boat when I got hurt, I could blame my wheelchair or my disability, my lack of ability to do the things I used to do, and I can just blame blame blame.”

Delagrave continued, “What happens is you get stuck in the blame game and you become rigid. You become paralyzed in your thought process. But then, it’s when you decide to make the choice. I talk a lot about personal responsibility, and for me it was when I was 19 laying in this bed just praying that I could move a toe or get up and walk. I kept thinking ‘I need to walk, I need to get out of this bed, I need to get out of this bed.’ And you’re stuck in the blame game and you can’t really move, you realize that you do have a choice. That you do have opportunity. That the opportunity sometimes is in the obstacle. What I thought was the obstacle ended up becoming the miracle – this wheelchair – and making the choice to get in the wheelchair. And figure out the wheelchair and figure out how to get around the block. And once I could do that, I could figure out how to go back to college, and once I did that, how to get a Master’s degree and play this made up sport where we smash into each other as hard as we can to try to make each other even more cripple. Total oxymoron.” Delagrave laughed. 

Joe Delagrave competing for team USA. Photo by Lexi Branham Coon.

“It starts with just getting in the wheelchair and realizing that you get a choice and all of a sudden you have the mobility to move forward. You have freedom, you’re not rigid and chained down by these blame games anymore. You have freedom in your choices and realize you have freedom in your choice of how you respond to your circumstance. It’s a powerful thing. For people with disabilities and for people without disabilities because we all have the ‘wheelchair’, we all have something in our life that we’ve gone through our are going through that feels like it’s holding us back and usually there’s an opportunity there,” Delagrave said. 

Joe Delagrave winning for team USA. Photo by Lexi Branham Coon.

Delagrave added, “I love the theme of the GoHawkeye Foundation and it really parallels what I stand for and like to do and it made a lot of sense to partner. I don’t take it lightly that the foundation has given me the grant for independence.” 

You can catch up with Joe coaching in Columbia in March and at the World Championships this year in Denmark, or at one of his upcoming motivational speeches scheduled on JoeDelagrave.com.