After Paralympics in Rio, Rugby Player Joins Humphrey School

Incoming Humphrey School of Public Affairs student Chuck Aoki has a legitimate excuse for missing the first two weeks of the fall semester: He’s in Rio de Janeiro, competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Aoki, who plays wheelchair rugby for Team USA, had to get permission from his professors, including Dean Eric Schwartz, to miss class. But they apparently didn’t mind too much, and Aoki is aiming to win his second Olympic medal when the rugby action gets underway in Rio next week.

Aoki, 25, is a Minneapolis native and graduate of Southwest High School. He’s been using a wheelchair since middle school because of a condition known as hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy type II, which means he has no sensation in his lower arms and legs. The condition began affecting him at age seven, but doctors couldn’t determine a specific diagnosis until he was 10.
Hooked on Rugby

An avid sports fan, Aoki played wheelchair basketball for several years when he was a kid, but when he got to high school, he was bitten by the rugby bug.

As Aoki tells it, the turning point was when he watched the movie “Murderball,” a documentary about the U.S. wheelchair rugby team that competed in the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. After Aoki saw the film, he decided to give wheelchair rugby a try. He joined a local team that played at the Courage Kenney Rehabilitation Institute, and was hooked.

“It’s a great sport for me,” Aoki said, “Better than basketball, because I was bad at shooting the ball.”

The violent nature of the game is one of the attractions, he added.

“The sound of metal smashing into metal may not seem relaxing … but for those of us who dedicate ourselves to the most destructive sport in the Paralympics, it has a certain charm to it,” Aoki wrote in a blog post for the U.S. Paralympic team (See for yourself what he means; here's a video with highlights from the 2012 London Paralympic Games).

Aoki made his international debut with the U.S. rugby team in 2009, and won a bronze medal with Team USA in London in 2012. (He's pictured here with his medal). Team USA is ranked No. 1 in the world going into Rio, and Aoki said he hopes to bring home a gold medal this time around.

After the games are over, Aoki will be hitting the books at the Humphrey School as he pursues a Master of Public Policy degree. Aoki selected the Humphrey School above graduate programs at Georgetown and New York University, which also admitted him.

“The Humphrey has diverse and experienced faculty who have been all over the world,” he said in explaining his decision. Plus, it’s his hometown, which he loves and where his parents and brother live.
A Role Model

Associate Dean Laura Bloomberg makes clear that Aoki earned his spot at the school.

“He is here at the Humphrey School because he’s a scholar. He just happens to have a disability,” she said. “He’s a role model to all of us in that he brings academic strengths that are completely separate from his disability.”

Aoki earned his bachelor’s degree in education at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, but now sees his career path taking him in a different direction.

He decided to study public policy because “at its core, it’s about helping people,” Aoki said.

“I believe very strongly that government can make a huge difference, especially for people who are underserved, including those with disabilities,” he said, adding that he believes the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) “is the greatest piece of legislation that was ever enacted.”

His two main goals—to compete (and win gold) in the Paralympics and to earn his master’s degree—are intertwined for Aoki, who said both give him the opportunity to be a visible leader, especially for children with disabilities. “I want to give them a role model that looks like them,” he said.

“There’s a huge segment of the population that has disabilities of some sort, but you don’t hear the voices of disabled people in society. There’s no public face,” Aoki said. “I feel a certain obligation to be a public face, to demonstrate that a person with a disability can be an expert on a whole host of topics.”
Big Goals

But there still has to be some time for rugby. Aoki’s plan for the next four years is already laid out: win the gold medal at the Rio Paralympic Games; complete his MPP degree by 2018; find a job that allows him enough time to continue his rugby training; win the rugby world championship in 2018; compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020.

Bloomberg, for one, is betting on Chuck Aoki to do all of that, and more.

“Chuck has big ideas and an expansive view of what public policy can do to benefit society in general,” she said. “He’s a remarkable young man, and I think he can do just about anything he wants to do in the future.”

Team USA’s first rugby game at the Paralympics is Sept. 14, and it will be streamed live on The Rio Games conclude on Sept. 18.

(Photo at top courtesy Kelly Gumbert)
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