Delvin McMillian lost both hands and feet at the age of 21. But the hardest thing he has ever done was fight for a spot on the US Paralympic wheelchair rugby team.
One day, he decided, one day he would fly.
The boy would stand in his mother’s backyard in the tiny town of Jessup, Georgia, and look up at the airplanes crossing the endless blue, so close and yet so far. He had never been on a plane before, but that did not matter. It just seemed like something fun, being in the sky. How could it not be magic, soaring through the clouds, so free?
He was a quiet boy. Reserved, his mother would say, not aggressive enough for team sports. When he joined the football team in junior high, his mother and aunt thought it might bring out the boy’s competitive spirit, his drive.
It didn’t. “We yelled at the coach,” she recalls, hoping he would yell at the boy and awaken him. It didn’t. Still, he played football and basketball in high school, good but not great. He just didn’t have the fire. He only wanted to fly.
He went to college, studied physical therapy, but after a year, his grades were not that good.
“I don’t think this is for me,” he told his mother.
“Life doesn’t owe you anything,” she told him. As a single mom, she knew this to be true. She believed in education. “They can’t ever take that from you.”
He wanted to join the Air Force. To become a pilot. To fly.
She would support him, but first he had to finish college. “You have to do something with your life,” she said. “You have to do something.”
He looked to the sky, to the limitless blue, and thought he knew his future.
Delvin McMillian lives in a two-story brick house in an upscale subdivision in Alabaster, a community 30 minutes south of Birmingham, Alabama. Blond boys toss footballs across landscaped lawns and race each other down the street.
Walking up to his home, I stupidly look for a wheelchair ramp. Delvin is a world-class wheelchair rugby player. But when he is not on the rugby court, he goes about his business on two prosthetic legs that begin below both knees. They vanish under his pants so well it is easy to forget them.
Photo courtesy Mary Lou Davis
He answers the door and leads me into a beautiful home with 12-foot tray ceilings and fancy trim. We sit at a vast granite island, by a restaurant-grade kitchen range that is probably worth more than my truck.
Delvin, 36, is 5’8, 152-lbs., with the broad-shouldered, muscular frame of an athlete. He has closely cropped hair and a short goatee, soft brown eyes, and a softer voice. When he is lost in thought, he rubs his chin thoughtfully with the nub of his left hand, a palm without fingers. He taps his smart phone screen with a prosthetic hook and grasps things with a pincer he controls with his shoulder. He can tie his shoes, unwrap a straw, and wrap his own stump in athletic tape. I ask him if there’s anything he can’t do.
“Button my top button,” he says with an gentle laugh. “I was going to get a button hook, but it’s been 13 years. I don’t wear a lot of dress shirts.”
He does not find his life remarkable. He drives a 2001 Honda Prelude, commutes half an hour to 9-to-5 job and shuttles his son to soccer games. He lifts weights at home and runs a 3-mile lap around the neighborhood a few times a week on running legs with curved blades instead of feet.
Delvin’s wife, Valerie, is a wedding planner, and the house is a testament to someone who is paid to apply good taste. She, too, has soft eyes and a soft voice. She backs her husband in everything he does. Their 7-year-old son, DJ—short for Delvin Jr.—says a shy hello then runs off to play. They live in a football state, but DJ is not the football type (he doesn’t like the hitting). He loves baseball and soccer.
Delvin’s mother, Alicia, pops in. She has taut, glowing skin, unruly hair, and could pass for his older sister. Behind rectangular spectacles, her eyes hold yours steady. She brims with the confidence of a woman perfectly at home in herself.
I ask them to start from the beginning. How they met. How he lost his hands and feet. How the loss of something that seemed so essential unlocked something even more essential.
Delvin sits quietly as the two most important women in his life talk over him, telling his story. That happens a lot, but he doesn’t mind.
He was a quiet boy.
Off the court, he is a quiet man.
The first time he ever stepped on a plane was the flight to basic training. After boot camp in San Antonio, he was stationed at Mount Home Air Force base in Idaho. He had enlisted in the Air Force with the goal of becoming a pilot. What kind of plane was unimportant to him.
“I wanted to fly fighter jets, but a cargo plane would do,” he says. “I didn’t care, as long as I could fly.” First, he would have to finish college and meet other requirements, including becoming an officer. Flight school was still a long way off, but at least he was on his way.
That first year, he worked as a member of the ground crew, readying the planes. He got to load and unload the weapons on F-16 fighter jets, which was exciting. Sometimes they jammed, and it was really exciting.
“I wanted to fly fighter jets, but a cargo plane would do. I didn’t care, as long as I could fly.”
One night in December 2000, he heard a mouse scratching around his barracks. He set a mousetrap in his room. One morning he heard it snap. He put the dead mouse in a brown paper bag and threw it in a dumpster.
A few weeks later, in January, he started feeling sick. Body aches. Fever. Fatigue. He figured it was the flu. He didn’t think much about it until the onset of shortness of breath. That’s when he called his mother.
“You been to the doctor?” she said.
The doctors said, take a couple days off. Get some rest. So he did. But when she called him a few days later, she heard a tremor in his voice.
“I’m sick,” he said. “I don’t feel good.”
“You need to go to the hospital,” she said. “If you don’t go, I’m calling the paramedics.”
He was weak, so someone drove him to the hospital. The doctors found pneumonia in both lungs. Both kidneys began to fail. The virus attacked his circulatory system, and blood stopped flowing to his limbs.
His mother immediately flew in from Alabama. When she saw him, she turned to the nurse in alarm.
“What did y’all do to him?” she said. “What is going on?”
He did not know she was there. He was unconscious, with tubes coming out of him every which way. A doctor explained that Delvin had Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, caused by the Hantavirus, which is carried by mice. The disease attacks suddenly, and at first may feel like a bad case of the flu before progressing rapidly. In Delvin’s case, the shortness of breath was caused by pulmonary edema, fluid in his lungs.
“What’s the prognosis?” Delvin’s mother asked.
“One out of five survive.”
She wanted to run, screaming, down the hall. But she held it together. Only later, on the phone with her aunt, did she allow herself to break down. The aunt told her she just had to trust that God doesn’t make mistakes. She took that to heart, and whispered in her son’s ear:
If you hear what they say, if you’re paralyzed, don’t let that get into your spirit. Because we trust in God.
His girlfriend, Valerie, flew to Idaho to join him, They had been together since high school. Even at 16, he opened doors and sent her roses. Their first date was a double date. They went to see a movie, “The Thin Red Line,” based on a WWII novel by James Jones. The movie title came from a line in the book: They discover the thin red line that divides the sane from the mad and the living from the dead.
He woke up in the hospital around Valentine’s Day to find his hands and feet gone black and hard, like tire rubber. Without blood flowing to his extremities, the tissue dried up and died. If he tapped them on the table, they sounded like wood. He feared that if they got caught between the mattress and the bed, they might break off. All four would have to be amputated.
“It was a shock,” he says, with his signature understatement.
He cried, but mostly he wondered about his future.
“What am I going to do? What can I do?”
He was 21 years old.
Eight years later, I met Delvin at Oak Mountain State Park, in a parking lot thrumming with cyclists. I was headed out on my mountain bike when my friend Billy rolled up with a buddy on a road bike.
“I want you to meet my friend Delvin,” Billy said. “We’re doing Ride 2 Recovery.”
I simply saw an athletic dude on a bike. Only when I moved to shake Delvin’s hand did I notice he did not have a hand to shake. His right arm ended below the elbow and transitioned into a bionic-looking arm that attached to the bicycle’s handlebars. His left hand was bare, a palm with no fingers. He waved his palm at me and smiled. I smiled and waved back.
Naturally, I did the next thing most cyclists do. I checked out his bike. Other than the handlebars — which had electronic buttons for shifting and braking—it looked more or less an ordinary road bike.
Photo courtesy Devlin McMillian
Then I noticed his two prosthetic legs. Below the Lycra cycling shorts, just under each knee, the muscles ended and the hardware began. Cushioned by a rubber sleeve, flesh married with plastic, and a metal rod with a prosthetic foot fit neatly into a cycling shoe, which attached to the pedals—as do all ordinary cycling shoes. Physiology? Meet technology.
I smiled a goofy, awe-struck smile and gushed about how amazing he was. What an inspiration! I meant every painfully earnest word. He shrugged it off. He was not being standoffish, just shy and slightly embarrassed, as if I were gushing about him winning a sack race at a family picnic.
Years later would I learn—and not because he told me—that he was the first quadruple-amputee to ride a road bike. That only a month after he learned to ride this bike, he took part in a 6-day, 350-mile ride from San Antonio to Dallas. That he proved a lot of experts wrong, and in doing so, opened an invisible door for many others like him.
The opportunity came about by chance, in an airport, where a wounded veteran noticed Delvin’s prosthetics. The vet told him about Ride 2 Recovery, a nonprofit that uses cycling as a form of therapy for veterans with PTSD and life-changing physical injuries.
Delvin wanted to be part of that. He called R2R founder John Worden, who had built custom bikes for riders with various disabilities—often an amputated arm or leg. Most people with two or more amputations rode hand cycles or recumbent bikes. Delvin, though, had another idea. He wanted a regular road bike.
This would be a challenge. Worden had never heard of a quadruple amputee who could ride a bike—any bike. He called every adaptive sports expert he knew. No one knew if this had ever been done. They did not think it was possible.
“The consensus was, quad amputees can’t ride regular upright bikes,” says Worden, a former pro who spent his cycling career pushing the limits of possibility. “They were adamant that it was impossible. I knew it was possible. I didn’t know how, but I knew that if a guy had enough desire, it would be possible.”
Worden called up his sponsors and ordered every bike part he could think of—road, mountain, cyclocross, BMX—and began tinkering on a prototype. It took him nearly six weeks to cobble those parts into a spectacular Franken-bike. It had one of the first electronic shifting systems ever made, with buttons on the handlebar that would change gears. A vertical post on the handlebar fit snugly in his prosthetic hand. Braking was the real challenge—how could Delvin brake with his unattatched hand without unbalancing the handlebars and making the front wheel turn? Worden added a padded button that Delvin could press down with his nub to engage the pre-market disc brakes.
Photo courtesy: Ride 2 Recovery
Ride 2 Recovery flew Delvin out to California for a test ride. He had to get used to special bike shoes that clipped into the pedals. They can be tricky to unclip, and almost every cyclist who has ever learned to use them has a funny story about coming to a standstill, forgetting to unclip, and toppling over—timberrrr!. To prevent this, they attached an adult-sized training wheel.
Like everyone else, he toppled over in the parking lot. Then he got the hang of it, rotating his ankle slightly to disengage his cleat from the pedal. He was a quick study. They took him out on the road for his first real ride.
The training wheel is what caused the crash. It snagged on the natural crown of the street, and flipped Delvin off the bike onto the rocky shoulder.
“He was like a missile heading straight for these boulders,” Worden says. “It was frightening. He gets up, dusts himself off, and says, ‘OK, let’s go.’ I knew right then and there he was my kind of guy.”
Delvin got right back in the saddle. Worden took off that training wheel. Del’s smile was as broad as the sky.
“I liked riding,” Delvin says. “It seemed like freedom. But it wasn’t as exciting as rugby.”
He came home from the hospital in March 2001, three months after getting sick. Then came 17 months of rehab and physical therapy, regaining his strength and learning to use to his new prosthetic limbs. His first legs were uncomfortable, attached by a strap around his waist. Bearing pressure on his stumps was painful, and he had to lean on a walker. But at least they were legs. And legs could take steps. And steps meant moving forward.
On the day he took his first steps without the walker, he psyched himself up with a goal. He was at his mother’s house, in the kitchen.
“I’m going to walk from here to the counter top,” he told his mom.
He took a few steps, reached the end of the counter. And then he kept going. Every time he set a goal for himself, he would go just a little bit further.
After Delvin’s mother returned to work, a medical transportation company picked him up at her house and drove him to appointments. One day, the company was short-staffed, and a manager filled in for the driver. Charles Bumpus was a big man with a big personality. He could warm a whole room with kind eyes, generous smile, contagious laugh, and the ability to shoot straight without wounding.
The two struck up conversation along the drive. Charles immediately noticed something special about Delvin. He had a specific gravity, a lightness of being. He was a young man who had suffered unthinkable loss and had every right to be bitter. Yet he was not. The places inside that might have held anger were instead filled with calmness. A quiet peace. An acceptance of his fate, and a readiness to get on with things and keep living.
As Charles travelled throughout the state for his job, he took Delvin to ride along now and then, to get him out of the house. Along the way, they became friends. Charles watched his friend adapt to life without fingers. Delvin tried a few robotic hands, but felt most comfortable using a hook with a thumb he controls by moving his shoulder.
Every day, the list of things he could do grew longer. Unwrap a peppermint. Fry an egg. Dial a phone. He cracked a few smart phone screens with the hook, but learned how to lighten his touch. The list of things he could not do grew shorter.
One day on the phone, Charles had an idea.
“Maybe you can work for us,” Charles said.
They hung up, and 10 minutes later, Delvin called back.
“Were you serious?” he asked Charles.
“Yes, I am.”
“What do I need to do?”
“Why don’t you come in and fill out an application.”
In the interview, Charles confirmed his hunch, that this man with no hands and no feet was capable of anything—with a few minor modifications. He had to move a little differently. Charles hired him to do clerical work—handling bills, filing paperwork, data entry.
“Maybe we can start at 20 hours a week,” Charles suggested, “and see how things go.”
That first week, 20 months after leaving the hospital, Delvin worked a full 40 hours. And he has ever since, for 15 years and running.
“There hasn’t been one time I didn’t have a full-time schedule since I’ve been there,” he says. “I don’t have any hands or feet, but God wanted me for my mind, you know?”
Today, Charles is not only Delvin’s boss, but also his closest friend. He has mentored Delvin but also learned from him. A man of deep faith, he believes there are no coincidences, that trying times forge who we are.
“Leaders aren’t just born. You have to be made. Something put you in a situation to make you,” he says. “You’re not made on the mountain—you’re made in the battles. You’re made in the most difficult times. That’s when you begin to grow.”
Charles did not see Delvin as disabled. But he realized how the world saw his friend. Sometimes it was disturbing.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘If I had to life like that, I would rather die,’” Charles says. “He can do just about anything. There are no limitations.”
Delvin’s first steps were halting, but when he hit his stride, he kept going. He learned to drive. Got a place of his own. Went back to finish his college degree, graduating from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, with a B.A. in communication. This time his grades were better.
Photo courtesy Devlin McMillian
One day more than a decade ago, Charles and Delvin were talking, and the topic of marriage came up. Delvin was still courting Valerie, his high school sweetheart, who had already stood by him in sickness and in health. He was thinking about proposing, but he wasn’t sure. Charles, who dispenses sage advice with the poetry of a preacher and the wisdom of a coach, spoke plainly.
“Delvin, take a moment to think about this. She was with you when you had both your arms, legs, feet. She was there then, and she’s here now. She’s still with you. When you were injured, when you were lying in that hospital bed, she made it out there to be with you. She realized that you will never ever be able to run your fingers through her hair. To grasp her face. And she has accepted that fact. That’s love. That’s love. That’s the woman you want in your life.”
Charles was there on that August day in 2002, when Delvin married Valerie in their hometown of Jessup. He slid a diamond ring on her finger. She bought him a wedding band and a chain, so he could wear it around his neck.
Not long after Delvin came home from the hospital, a man with no arms and no legs came to visit. His amputations were higher than Delvin’s—well above both knees, and just below the elbows—so instead of prosthetic legs to get around, he used a wheelchair. He drove a car, lived independently, and worked a full-time job.
Bob Lujano was, and is, a recreation specialist for the Lakeshore Foundation, a Paralympic Training Site and a facility that offers athletic programs for adults and kids with disabilities. He was also a member of the USA Wheelchair Rugby team, and knew the power of sports to overcome one of the toughest challenges of living with a disability: the psychology of adapting. He was the perfect person to take Delvin under his broken wing, because he obliterated the thin red line between possible and impossible.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Bob was a 9-year-old Little League baseball player when he lost his arms and legs to the deadliest form of meningitis, which very nearly killed him. He was raised by a dad who didn’t see his limitations, so Bob didn’t see them either, despite whatever the rest of the world saw. In PE class, teachers expected Bob to play checkers while other kids played sports. But he wanted to play, too, and didn’t see why he couldn’t. So he figured out on his own how to adapt to play football and basketball with his friends.
At the University of Texas, he discovered the wheelchair basketball team. Bob wasn’t officially on the team, but he played with them and began lifting weights and training. After finishing a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Tennessee, he went to work for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. That’s where he discovered wheelchair rugby.
The sport gave him focus, drive, and glory, and showed him what he was made of. He was a member of the U.S. national team for seven years, and took home a bronze medal from the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done? Probably making the U.S. team,” Bob says. “Those were the hardest years of my life.”
When he was 17, before graduating high school, Bob wrote down his bucket list: College. Grad school. Drive a car. Work a full-time job. Write a book. Get married. Have kids. Skydive. He is still ticking off that list, and is almost done, except for marriage, kids, and skydiving. He was engaged once, but when the couple learned they couldn’t have kids, they called it off.
Once, he was strapped in and ready to bungee jump at Six Flags when a man in a suit came running up, breathless, to stop him.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t,” he said. He turned to Bob’s friend, a single-leg amputee, and added, “And you can’t either.”
The man with one leg laughed at the man with two.
“I’ve already been three times.”
Bob is now director of the US Quad Rugby Association, which has 42 teams and 550 athletes. In early 2015, he published his book, a memoir.
It’s called “No Arms, No Legs, No Problem.”
Bob is an outspoken, confident guy who deals with stares from children and side-eyes from adults by rolling right up with a disarming smile and extending his arm for a handshake.
“Hi, I’m Bob. Is this your first time watching wheelchair rugby?”
When he first introduced himself to Delvin, he wasn’t sure how to read him. He was so quiet. Was he still in shock over losing his hands and feet? Or was he simply shy?
Bob invited Delvin to play sitting volleyball, sometimes referred to as Paralympic volleyball. Delvin was up for anything. And when Bob saw him on the volleyball court, he had another idea. Without hands, volleyball and basketball were difficult to play. But wheelchair rugby athletes must have an impediment to all four appendages. Delvin was fast and strong. He might be perfect for the sport.
Wheelchair rugby originated in Canada in 1977, a contact sport for people with four impaired limbs. It was originally called “murderball” because of its violent collisions, and that name became the title of an Academy Award-winning documentary film about the US Paralympic Rugby team as they prepared for the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Bob was on that team.
The sport is played on a basketball court, four players on each team. They pivot and clash in heavy-duty wheelchairs with canted wheels that make them hard to tip. Using a volleyball covered with sticky resin to make it easier to control, players must pass or dribble every 10 seconds. A point is scored when a player with the ball crosses the goal line with both wheels. Over the course of a 32-minute game, scores can climb into the 60s or higher.
Most athletes come to the sport with spinal cord injuries. A few, like Bob, have multiple amputations. Players are given a classification between 1 and 4 points, based on their level of function. Four players on the court at once may not total more than 8 points. Class 1 and 2 players are generally defensive, their chairs rigged with special “pick bars”—like cowcatchers on a the front of a train—used to block and hold offensive players on the other team. Class 3 or higher generally means offense. They have good ball control, speed, and agility.
Bob is a Class 2. Other players in his class have a longer reach or “better hands,” so he plays to his strengths: he’s coachable, adaptable enough to play both kinds of chairs, and diffuses tension among teammates.
“You’re out there playing, and things go wrong—it’s easy to yell at the coach or an official. I didn’t want that. I was the guy you could yell at,” he says.
Delvin is a Class 3. He is also an anomaly, an ambulatory athlete who uses a wheelchair only for sport. That should have put him at a considerable disadvantage going up against players whose wheelchairs have become extensions of their bodies.
But something magical happened when he took off his legs and sat down in that chair.
Suddenly he had wings.
“What really turned me on was the hitting part,” he remembers. “That’s really all I wanted to do in the beginning. Just bang against each other.”
The wheelchairs collide so hard at times that both wheels leave the ground. The sound is enough to make spectators wince. There was something about that violent clash that made him feel more alive.
For his first three years in the sport, he mostly rode the bench. Besides becoming accustomed to maneuvering a wheelchair, he needed to build stamina and endurance, agility and ball-handling skills. The hardest part, he says, was learning the rules and strategy of the game.
In 2006, his second year, he began to train with discipline. He strapped weights to the bottom of his chair before 5 a.m. workouts of agility drills, stopping at full speed and pivoting, then accelerating backward. He would push his chair around the track, timing each mile to see if he was getting faster.
And he was fast. Delvin flew down the court with speed that other players dream of having. Where some athletes had hands that didn’t fully open or close, or limbs with limited mobility, Delvin’s arms had full power and control. Even though he cannot wear his prosthetics while playing, with his left hand wrapped in athletic tape and his right shielded by a thick rubber sleeve, he was one of the highest functioning players on the court.
Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images
On the court, he transformed into someone else. He gritted his teeth. The muscles in his neck strained as he pushed himself in ways he never had before.
“I didn’t know I had that drive,” he says. “Early in my life, there was no end zone. There was never anything to focus on. With rugby, the Paralympics became the end zone.”
He also found his voice. On the court, he hollered, hooted, and yelled. Rugby flipped some inner switch, and his volume went all the way up. He became the guy yelling at everyone else to get his team fired up.
“That is a hidden quality of Del’s, his animation,” says Bob. “It really comes out when he plays rugby. He slams into people and—Whoo! He’s this quiet, well-mannered guy, and then you get him on the court and it’s like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
“Once the light went on, he’d get the ball and just go. We couldn’t stop him.”—Bob Lujano
Soon, the coach of the US team began asking that same question.
In the spring of 2009, Delvin was invited to attend an elite training camp at the Lakeshore Foundation, the Paralympic equivalent of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It is also the headquarters of the National Quad Rugby Association. Tucked in an upscale suburb, Lakeshore hosts the nation’s best wheelchair rugby players for grueling 3-day camps that weed the good from the great. They also serve as tryouts for the national team.
It was a development year, when the experienced players get to rest on off years between the Paralympics and Worlds, and the group recruits new talent. Coaches, sports psychologists, nutritionists, and trainers evaluate players and put them through three-a-day workouts on days that begin at 8 a.m. and don’t end until 9 p.m. By the time they sleep, their hands are raw from pushing the wheels and their bodies ache from the hits and the long hours in their rugby chairs.
The head coach of the U.S. national rugby team, James Gumbert, noticed Delvin immediately. Not only was he fast and strong, he had exceptional function for someone without hands. He was one of the first quad amputees on the radar, but even among them, he stood out.
“We’ve had two or three in the past 10 or 15 years who had the function of Delvin,” Gumbert says. “He has longer arms…. Most are at the elbow.”
He had function. He had talent. And now, he had drive. When Delvin crested the learning curve, he would be one of the sport’s rising stars.
“Once the light went on, he’d get the ball and just go,” Bob says, “We couldn’t stop him.”
And nothing did. Delvin made the national team, but he didn’t stop there, either.
He had high standards to live up to. He would be measured against other Class 3 players, elite athletes who train just as hard as so-called “able-bodied” Olympians. He had to play up to his class.
Among Class 3 wheelchair rugby players, Delvin’s teammate, American Paralympian Chuck Aoki, is considered the best of the best. He started playing wheelchair basketball at age 9, but switched to rugby after watching “Murderball” because he found it more exciting. He made the US national rugby team at the age of 21.
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images
“No one wants to be pitied, least of all Paralympic athletes.”—Chuck Aoki
Chuck is as driven as they come. On top of team practices, Chuck spends 20 hours a week training solo, strapping weights to his wheelchair before grueling hill repeats on a parking deck in Minneapolis. Like Delvin, Chuck must balance training with a full-time job. Chuck is also more than a decade younger, and doesn’t yet have kids.
“I’ve spent plenty mornings on a basketball court by myself, doing sprints,” Chuck says. “There was a time I couldn’t find a track. I’d sneak into the high school, lift up the gate, slide my chair under, and go do laps on the track.”
Chuck was born with Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy (HASN) Type 2, a condition that prevents him from feeling anything below his elbows and knees. This makes him exceptionally vulnerable to injuries, from broken bones to tiny cuts that can lead to life-threatening infections.
“When I was six, I was walking around and broke my femur—which is really hard to do—and I walked on it for six weeks because I didn’t feel it,” he says. “I damaged my legs so badly I had to use a wheelchair. Which damaged my hands so badly I had fingers amputated.”
Chuck sees HSAN Type 2 as his oxymoronic blessed curse. The condition that put him in a wheelchair also gave him the opportunity to become one of the world’s best athletes in his sport. It is also his Achilles heel. As is true for many athletes, his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness.
“That was the window opening when the door closes,” he says. “It allowed me to play the sport, but gives me all these health issues.”
Chuck speaks bluntly about para-athletic issues I had honestly never considered. Such as being called “inspiring.” He hates that word. It feels like a pitiful euphemism for people fighting through hopeless situations. Being told, You’re such an inspiration!—as I had once told Delvin—was something of a backhanded compliment.
“I always took offense to being told I was ‘inspirational’ by anyone, because it felt like this inspiration came out of pity toward me,” he wrote in a blog post for Paralympic.org. “And no one wants to be pitied, least of all Paralympic athletes.”
When I read that, I cringed, but it opened my eyes to the subtle ways we treat people with disabilities differently, even if we don’t really mean to.
I called Chuck to see what else I could learn. With equal parts gratitude and enthusiasm, he rattled off his pet peeves:
1. We’re Paralympians. We’re not Olympians. We’re not para-Olympians. Or Special Olympians.
2. Don’t make assumptions. Ask questions. If you wonder how the chair works, ask. The last thing we care about is being offended by you asking, “What’s wrong with your hands?”
3. If someone with a disability doesn’t want to talk, it’s more about them than about you. Most see it as a teachable moment, especially with kids.
Most of all, I realized that an athlete is an athlete, no matter what sport or adaptation. Para-athletes train, sweat, and suffer like all the rest of us. They just use different gear.
“You use a tennis racket,” Chuck says. “I use a wheelchair.”
On the way to the 2011 Pan American Championships, Delvin had to check two wheelchairs through customs in Bogota, Colombia. He brought his 30-pound rugby chair, of course. But he also brought an “everyday chair” that he rarely ever uses. It was his first rugby tournament abroad, and he would receive his international classification. He was a 3 in the states, and it would hurt the US team if foreign officials classed him higher, so Coach Gumbie made him bring the chair.
“I don’t want to see you out of this the entire time we’re on the trip.”
“But coach,” Delvin said, “I can’t sit this long. It hurts me!”
“You go to your room and you can get out of your chair. Do whatever you want to do, just like you’re at home. But out here you’ve got to be in your chair.”
“Coach, I can’t do this.”
“You have to. You don’t want to give the perception that there’s nothing wrong with you. Our team is counting on you being the classification we need you to be.”
Coach Gumbie knew that Delvin could not stand to let his teammates down. That’s what got him engaged on the court. And now it got him in that chair.
Off the court, the only time he uses a chair is for bathroom trips in the middle of the night, when he doesn’t bother putting on his legs. The chair was ill-fitting and ugly, painted sky-blue. He found it uncomfortable and embarrassing and thoroughly inconvenient. But he began to see the world a little differently—the way his teammates saw it—noticing the curbs that had to be hopped, the ramps that didn’t exist. He was usually the guy pushing their chairs up the curbs, reaching things off shelves.
He got as close as he ever gets to stewing, but he sucked it up for the team. It was ironic, trying not to look too able-bodied for his sport. But the coach was right. It mattered.
“That was the most I’ve ever heard the length of someone’s stumps discussed by a coach,” Chuck Aoki says.
The officials classed him a 3. In the tournament, Delvin played up to his class, and then some. He and the rest of team USA mopped the floor with the competition.
Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images
“He was Del. Flying around, screaming, trying to knock down everyone from another country,” Chuck says. “He came off the bench with total intensity and fire.”
They beat Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and their biggest archrivals—the Canadians—twice. Delvin felt the weight of a gold medal slip around his neck. He would never be quite the same.
That night, after the awards ceremony, the athletes convened for a party on the roof of a Colombian mall. Coach Gumbie, Chuck Aoki, and the rest of the team looked up from their chairs to see Delvin striding in on his legs.
“What are you doing?” hissed Gumbie.
“I couldn’t take it anymore, coach,” Delvin said. “I’m classed. I’m in.”
Delvin looked ahead to the 2012 Paralympics in London, and everything that had happened in his life made sense. He clearly would not have found his sport if he had not lost his limbs. Would he have discovered his voice somewhere else? His drive? Maybe. But then, maybe not.
He had made great sacrifices to get where he was. By now, his son was five years old. He was one of the few Paralympic-level athletes with a full-time job—many of them have settlements—and he continued to work 40 hours a week. He trained at 5 a.m. before work. Three-hour team practices in the evenings became the norm.
“When we got [Delvin] motivated and talking, it was like we were playing five on four. He was everywhere.”—Coach Gumbie
He pushed himself harder than he ever had. Lifting weights. Doing sprints. Performing agility drills until his arms were numb and the chair was an extension of his body. It was hard work. It was not fun. He knew that somewhere else, teammates and competitors were strapping on weights and pushing themselves up a parking garage. He wanted to make the Paralympic team more than he had wanted anything in his life.
Even more than he wanted to fly.
The coach noticed. And when Del was vocal, he seemed like two players in one.
“When we got him motivated and talking,” Gumbie says. “It was like we were playing five on four. He was everywhere.”
Photo courtesy Mary Lou Davis
Just as he could see his end zone, life tripped him with a factor he could not control: kidney failure. The Hantavirus that cost him his hands and feet had also damaged his kidneys.
Going into the 2012 Paralympic camp, his kidneys were functioning at 10 percent. The competition was stiffer than in the development year when he’d made the national team. Delvin went up against veteran and Hall of Fame players, the Michael Jordans of their sport. How fast could he push? How hard could he throw? Could he get rid of the ball with one hand? How well did he know the rules of the game? Could he think out there?
Coach Gumbie agonized over the chess game of creating a team with just the right chemistry, talent, and classification.
As Bob Lujano aptly puts it: “Is it your 12 best? Or your best 12?”
Actually, it would have to be 10. There were 12 spots on the US national team, but only 10 could go the London Games.
The coach knew about Delvin’s kidneys. It had to be considered. If Delvin’s performance was hindered, it could hurt the team. If his name came up for a transplant, he might have to miss the Games entirely.
And yet, the stuff he was made of was rare and true.
“A quadriplegic cannot do some of the things that Del can. The ability to sweat, to keep their heart rate up. Use full core trunk. We just don’t have that.”
But there was something else, something greater than that.
“You can’t teach function,” the coach says. “You can’t teach heart. You can’t teach desire.”
Delvin made the national team, as one of the final 12. But for the Paralympic team that would go to London, two players had to be dropped.
Delvin was the very last cut.
It is a soul-crushing, heart-ripping kind of pain universal to all sports, to give everything you’ve got and be told it’s not enough. And the closer you get to what you want, the farther and harder you fall.
They posted the names of the team on a board, but coach told the cuts in person. After he did, Delvin went into the gym to gather his things, feeling his back burn with the eyes of the players who made the team. He felt them watching, wondering how he would react, what he would say. Some guys throw their gear, cuss, cry, or storm off.
Del just gathered his things and left quietly.
Three years later, his eyes still leak when he tells it, and he dabs at the tears with his nub.
“It’s like you’ve got a balloon, and someone takes it and just goes POP! Then it’s just gone,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve worked so hard for something in my life.”
Delvin went back to work, but his best friend and boss saw a hollowed-out man. A grey cloud seemed to follow him around.
“He struck me as a person who was literally dying,” Charles says. He encouraged his friend to get back on the court. Because that’s what made him happy. That’s when he was most himself.
Delvin tried, but he had little interest. After a taste of the national team, club rugby just wasn’t the same. And his kidney troubles got worse. He had dialysis three hours a day, three days a week. He desperately needed a transplant. His name had been on the list for some time, but getting an organ can take years.
“It’s like you’ve got a balloon, and someone takes it and just goes POP! Then it’s just gone,”
Charles saw his friend, who had once soared so high, enter a tailspin.
“When you’ve had something in your life for so long, and the wind gets knocked out of you, you’ve got to pick yourself up. Because if you don’t, you begin to sink. And the further you sink into this hole, the further you have to climb out of it.”
I ask Delvin point-blank the question that has been burning in my mind ever since I realized he was a man whose greatest challenge is not what I assumed.
“When you look back at the things you’ve had to overcome—the psychological trauma of the team situation, the physical trauma of losing your limbs—what was harder?”
He doesn’t have to think long to answer.
“Probably being cut from the team.”
Coach Gumbie knows how much it hurts, because he got cut once, too. On the first day of tryouts. By a coach who also was his close friend.
Gumbie broke his neck three decades ago in a car wreck on Christmas night. He was paralyzed, and his world came apart. Rugby helped him put it back together, assembling the broken pieces into something new and surprisingly good. He is married with 4-year-old twins and he coaches the world’s best athletes. He knows how much rugby means to them, because of what it did for him.
“It helped me get back into life, and helped me understand that the only limits are what you put on yourself,” he says. “It gives people the confidence to go out and live life on their own terms, as opposed to what everyone else tells us.”
I call him over Skype to talk with him about Delvin. His voice catches with emotion when he talks about how hard it is to cut people like Del. When I tell him Del says being cut from the team was harder than losing his limbs, Gumbie wipes his eyes.
It wasn’t that Del wasn’t good enough, just that players with more experience were a better fit for that team at that time. He is clear about Del’s weaknesses, but also respects his strengths.
“If Del came back to me today and said, Coach, give me a tryout. I’d say, ‘You bet. Today.’”
I mention—because I think he already knows—that after three years of dialysis and waiting in limbo, on September 27, 2014 Delvin got a kidney. Now he wants to give rugby one more try.
“Are you serious?!” he says, brightening.
“Yeah,” I say. “He’s 35 now. Is that old? Does he have a shot?”
“If this is something that he wants,” he says. “The only one who can stop Del is Del.”
Before DJ leaves for school each day, Delvin hugs him at the door.
“I love you,” Delvin tells his son.
“I love you too.”
“What are you gonna do today?”
“Never quit,” DJ says. “Don’t give up.”
They say this every day.
The biggest obstacle that stood between Delvin and his dream, his kidney, is now healing inside him. He has bought a new chair, custom fitted, and he is starting the long climb back to rugby shape.
A part of him is still quiet, though.
He is older now, and he knows the long hours, the suffering, the costs. His kid is older, too. DJ is seven now, and he notices when his daddy misses soccer games. When the invitation arrives for the April 2015 Paralympic training camp, Delvin waffles over committing. He is struggling with motivation. I can’t tell if he’s ready to go all-in.
Photo courtesy Mary Lou Davis
“You have a kidney,” I say. “Are you going to try to get there?”
“I’m definitely going to give it one more shot.”
He says so, but I am still uncertain.
Then, on a Wednesday night in February, Del lets me come watch his first post-kidney practice. I’ve never seen him play before, and was not sure, over the months of interviews, that I would ever get the chance. I am jittery with excitement. I’ve never seen the man I’ve heard about, the one he becomes on the court.
When Del walks into the gym, legs hidden in long pants, arms full of bags and athletic tape, I almost don’t recognize him. He changes into athletic shorts and sits down in a scratched and dented tank of a wheelchair with red wheels. He slips off his legs and straps himself in.
“Del!” Bob yells, rolling up with a ball on his lap. The other club players are glad to see him back. He beams.
They warm up with agility drills, pivoting and rolling backward, passing the ball with precision and speed. He looks so at home in his chair, like a professional cyclist looks on a bike. Though handling skills are perishable—on a bike or a chair—he doesn’t seem rusty at all.
But, still, he is quiet.
They take a few laps around the track before rolling onto the court for a scrimmage. Chairs clash and bang violently. One player gets hit so hard he tips onto the hardwood floor. The coaches right him. The battle goes on.
Something comes into Del’s eyes. A quickening. His brow pinches with intensity, his neck muscles strain, and he pushes through the fray toward the goal line with a ferocity I have never seen. Two players try to hold him.
Then, finally, I hear him yell.
And he flies across the line.