Latter-day Saints in the Paralympics, days 1 & 2: Wins in wheelchair rugby and goalball, plus fencing bouts

Wins in wheelchair rugby and goalball, along with fencing bouts with various weapons, were part of the first two days of the Paralympic Games for athletes connected to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Wheelchair rugby 

Josh Wheeler, of the United States, carries a ball against Canada’s defense during a pool phase group match of wheelchair rugby at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Josh Wheeler, of the United States, carries a ball against Canada’s defense during a pool phase group match of wheelchair rugby at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Shuji Kajiyama, Associated Press

With wheelchairs clashing, and tipping over at times, and quickly zooming up and down the court, Team USA, including Josh Wheeler, won its first two matches in the pool phase Group B against New Zealand 63-36 on Wednesday, Aug. 25, and Canada 58-54 on Thursday, Aug 26. 

Wheeler, 41, of Tucson, Arizona, scored the first try, or point, in the match against New Zealand. He scored 13 tries, had five steals and played more than 15 minutes. 

In the hard-fought match against Canada, Team USA was behind 28-27 at halftime and pulled ahead in the third and fourth quarters. Wheeler played more than 26 minutes, scored 14 tries, two steals and one penalty. 

Wheeler, who attended BYU, was part of the silver-medal team in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was in a motorcycle accident in 2006 that broke his neck and he lost function in his lower body.  

The eight mixed wheelchair rugby teams, which can include men and women, are divided into two pools and each team plays the other three teams in the pool. Team USA is in Group B with Great Britain, Canada and New Zealand. The top two teams from each pool move on to the medal matches. 

Wheelchair rugby combines elements of football (throwing the ball and getting the ball in the goal area), basketball (dribbling the ball) and hockey (penalty boxes and crashing into each other) and is played in four eight-minute quarters. Wheeler’s classification is a 2.5, with 3.5 the highest mobility, and teams are allowed four players with a total of up to 8 on the court.

Team USA plays Great Britain in the final pool game on Friday, Aug. 27.  

Goalball 

Daryl Walker, standing, prepares to throw during a goalball match against Brazil on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Daryl Walker, standing, prepares to throw during a goalball match against Brazil on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021, at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Credit: Screenshot via nbcolympics.com

Team USA, including Daryl Walker, won the goalball match against Brazil 8-6 on Thursday, Aug. 26, as USA fought for each point in its first game of the preliminary round. Walker played the last seven minutes of the game and scored a point and also successfully blocked a penalty throw. 

Walker, who hails from Florida and trains in Indiana, has albinoism that affects his eyesight and is legally blind. He was part of the team that won silver in 2016 in Rio. 

Goalball, a game designed for the visually challenged, is played on a court about the size of a volleyball court with textured lines and a ball that’s about the size of basketball with a bell in it. Each team is allowed three players on the court and all players wear darkened visors to equalize visual ability as they defend their net and throw the ball to score points. The game is comprised of two 12-minute halves. 

The 10 goalball teams are divided into groups and each team plays all of the teams in the pool. Team USA is in Group A with Brazil, Japan, Algeria and Lithuania. The top four teams from each pool moves on to the quarterfinals. 

Team USA’s next preliminary-round game is Friday, Aug. 27, against Japan. 

Wheelchair fencing 

Shelby Jensen, of Salt Lake City, poses before the opening ceremonies on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. She is a wheelchair fencer competing at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Shelby Jensen, of Salt Lake City, poses before the opening ceremonies on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. She is a wheelchair fencer competing at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Credit: USA Fencing

Shelby Jensen fought with a saber and epee during the individual wheelchair fencing tournaments on Wednesday, Aug. 25, and Thursday, Aug. 26.

In the preliminary round, the fencers are divided into three pools and have four bouts with others in the pool. Based on points scored in the bouts, the top competitors from each pool move on to the elimination round.  

Jensen, 20, of Salt Lake City, went 0-4 in the individual saber, Category A, and her opponents included two-time world champion Jing Bian of China and four-time world medalist Yevheniia Breus of the Ukraine. She finished 15th in her pool and was eliminated. 

In the individual epee, Category A, competition, Jensen was 1-3 in the preliminary round, facing Bian and Brues again, and moved to the elimination round. She lost to Hungary’s Amarilla Veres, who won gold, in the round of 16. Bian won bronze. Jensen was 12th overall. 

Athletes who have a Category A classification have good sitting balance — with or without leg support — and a normal fencing arm. 

Each fencer is seated in a wheelchair fastened to the floor and can move their upper bodies as they attack, guard, parry and engage. 

The sabre is derived from the cavalry sword, and the epee, the heaviest of the three weapons, is like a dueling sword. The foil is the lighter weapon and is derived from a court sword, according to olympics.com

Jensen, who is a five-time national champion, is paralyzed on her right side due to strokes she had when she was 7 years old. She started fencing when she was 15 and she fences left-handed. The first-time Paralympian is engaged and planning a September wedding.

She is also competing in the team epee on Friday, Aug. 27, and the team foil on Sunday, Aug. 29.

Read more of Church News’ coverage of athletes connected to the Church competing in the Paralympics

Competing Friday

In addition to the wheelchair rugby and goalball matches and the team fencing tournament, competitions Friday, Aug. 27, include the preliminary pararchery round in the individual recurve division for USA’s Eric Bennett. Also, the preliminary-pool games begin in sitting volleyball, with Canada, including Payden Olsen Vair, facing the women from Brazil. 

On social

Jensen shared photos and video from the opening ceremonies, including those on the fencing team. 

Runner Margarita Faundez, of Chile, shared photos of the opening ceremonies, including the Olympic flames.

Canada’s Vair shared photos of her and her volleyball teammates from the opening ceremonies.

USA’s pararcher Bennett shared photos from practice sessions on the archery range. 

Swimmer Lourdes Alejandra Aybar, of the Dominican Republic, smiled flexed in a photo at the Tokyo Aquatics Center. 

“Happy to be here, in one of the most beautiful pools I have seen, with the best preparation I could have, accompanied by the best coach and team and just a few hours from making my Paralympic debut,” she wrote in Spanish.