On a roll

Southwest High senior excels at basketball, joins the national wheelchair rugby squad

LINDEN HILLS — Chuck Aoki is, without question, one of Southwest High School’s most accomplished athletes.

It’s less certain how many people know this, seeing as how the senior doesn’t have a spot on any of the school’s teams. Not that Aoki, 17, is shy about sharing.

"I like to talk a lot," he said, grinning. "You win a national title and you get a little bit braggy."

That national title came in March of last year, capping an undefeated season for the Courage Center Junior Rolling Timberwolves, a wheelchair basketball team sponsored by a Minneapolis-based rehabilitation center. At the end of 2008, three months into a new season, the team’s winning streak stood at 34 games.

Still, Aoki’s future in sports lies elsewhere, in a game better suited to his physical style of play: wheelchair rugby, the gritty, fast-paced, hard-hitting team sport featured in the 2005 documentary "Murderball."

He was the youngest player to earn a spot on the 2009 USA Wheelchair Rugby National Team at tryouts in Alabama in mid-December. It is the first rung in international competition, and Aoki plans to climb that ladder all the way to the 2012 London Paralympics.

Just before Christmas, Aoki was reclining in a hospital bed at Children’s-Minneapolis. He has short, black hair, a broad smile and the upper body of a serious athlete: bulging shoulders and biceps and forearms shaped like giant turkey drumsticks.

Aoki seemed at ease in the seventh-floor hospital room. Born with an extremely rare genetic disorder, frequent hospital stays have been a part of his life since childhood.

"Back a couple years ago, probably, I was in here four or five times a year for two years," he said, shrugging.

His mom, Jennifer Nelson, sat on one side of the bed, and Ben Kenyon, his best friend and co-captain of the Junior Rolling Timberwolves, sat on the other. They were smiling and chatting, seemingly infected with Aoki’s lingering excitement from Alabama.

"It was validating, because I’d … spent all this time in the hospital," Aoki said. "I’d persevered through all that and came out strong, still. I showed up at tryouts, kicked some old guys’ butts and made the team."

A precocious player

Aoki has never met anyone else with hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy type II. Before him, there was just a smattering of diagnosed cases, including a family of five living in Montreal.

"I like to say it’s just me and the Canadians," Aoki joked.

The effects of the disorder are complicated, but most significant for Aoki are a complete lack of sensation in his hands and lower legs. Bones and joints in those parts of his body have been damaged over time.

Aoki taught himself to walk as a child, and he didn’t start using a wheelchair full-time until age 12. He played T-ball as a 6-year-old, but it was difficult.

"The thing about T-ball was I’d just get tired running base to base," Aoki said.

Nelson said tests later showed her son simply required much more energy to get his body going than most young children. He could walk and run, but he’d get tired or injured.

"When Chuck was younger, he had a lot of issues with his legs and lots of surgeries, so he did water therapy at the Courage Center," Nelson said. "He was pushing through the snow one day and this lady goes, ‘Hey! Hey you, over there! You in the wheelchair.’"

It was Sharon Van Winkle, then wheelchair basketball coach at the Courage Center, who spotted Aoki from her office window. That meeting, in a way, launched Aoki on his current trajectory.

Van Winkle said Aoki was an intelligent player, with an innate understanding of the game.

"Even when he was 8 years old, he was drawing diagrams for me and teaching me how to coach," she said.

When Nelson showed up to practice one day, she overheard two other parents discussing her son: "He said, ‘That kid is going to be a general when he grows up. Listen to him giving orders out there.’"

Kenyon, Aoki’s longtime friend, said his Junior Rolling Timberwolves teammate was a fierce competitor. When asked to describe Aoki’s style of play, Kenyon began tentatively.

"He shoots rather well," he said, watching for a reaction. "He loves being aggressive — and talking back to refs."

Aoki, grinning, shot back: "You know what? You’re going to make me look bad."

"He’s the heart and soul of our team, I guess is a good way of putting it," Kenyon continued. "He gets us pumped up when we’re in clutch situations. He gets us fired up, gets us ready."

On the sideline

When the Junior Rolling Timberwolves gathered at Courage Center for their first practice after Christmas, Aoki watched from the sidelines. He was out of the hospital, but still recovering from the finger infection that put him there.

His teammates, who range in age from 13–18, careened across the basketball court on specially designed wheelchairs. They have reinforced frames and flared wheels that allow for on-a-dime turns.

A high-speed collision under the basket tipped one of the chairs, sending a sweating body to the floor. The downed player demonstrated a "pop-up" — an essential skill in wheelchair sports — swiftly righting his chair before pushing back down the court.

In wheelchair rugby, collisions are the name of the game. Aoki paraphrased a line from "Murderball" to explain the rules: "You have a jump ball, and then you kill the man with the ball.

"It’s completely full contact," he said. "You can ram into anybody as hard as you want."

There is a glimmer of mischief in Aoki’s eyes when he talks about rugby. It made his mother nervous, at first, but Nelson said seeing "Murderball" changed her mind.

"It so totally matches his personality," she said.

Junior Rolling Timberwolves Coach Mike Bauler said Aoki’s basketball skills — he plays guard — translated well to rugby.

"Chuck plays a huge role on our defense because he’s so fast and he’s so strong," Bauler said.

In May, and then again in August, Aoki will return to Alabama to practice with the national rugby team, which took gold at the Beijing Paralympics. He’s already thinking ahead to October’s zonal tournament in Argentina, an important first step toward London 2012.

First, though, he needed to get into a new, custom-made rugby wheelchair he’d ordered from Melrose, one of only three manufacturers in the world. It was supposed to arrive in time for Christmas, but it was late.

Aoki, typically, shrugged it off. Whether it’s spending another night in the hospital or being forced to sit out a basketball practice, he tends to roll with the punches. He’s reluctant to show frustration — over anything.

"I don’t want [my disability] to define my life; I want it to shape my life," Aoki said. "If I didn’t have this disability, I wouldn’t be able to play basketball, I wouldn’t be able to play rugby.

"It’s like, I wouldn’t want to not have those things in my life because they’re awesome, you know?"