Afghanistan: Refugee Paralympic Team send message of ‘hope’
His Japanese great-grandparents and grandparents were imprisoned in an American World War II internment camp and now he has carried the flag for Team USA at the Paralympic Games opening ceremony in Tokyo.
Chuck Aoki, who captains the wheelchair rugby team, was born in Minneapolis with hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy, a rare genetic disorder that means he has no feeling in his hands or feet.
“As a young kid, I was pretty much like every other kid. I played baseball, ran around with my friends, and generally seemed pretty normal,” said Aoki.
“Until one day, after my mom took me to the doctor because of some swelling she found odd in my knee, they discovered I had broken my femur at age six.
“Not only did I break it, but I had walked on it for six weeks, since I could not feel it.
“This injury was a precursor to my next six years, which saw me try to walk, tear a ligament, be sidelined again, then break something else.
“This would continue until I was 12, when I decided along with my doctor, that I would need to use a wheelchair full time.”
Flag bearers Melissa Stockwell and Charles Aoki of Team United States lead their delegation in the parade of athletes during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 24, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Aoki, 30, started playing wheelchair basketball when he was seven, but moved to wheelchair rugby at the age of 15 when he watched the acclaimed 2005 documentary Murderball on the sport.
Aoki’s paternal family is from Japan, and his great-grand-parents moved to the US in the early 1900s, before they and their children were placed in prison camps when war broke out.
After their release, Aoki’s grandfather went on to serve in the US Army and Aoki spoke of his pride at being selected to be one of two flag bearers, along with triathlete Melissa Stockwell, at the opening ceremony.
“Being selected flag bearer is such a stunning honour that I never expected,” he said.
“We have an incredible group of athletes in our delegation and to be selected by my peers is amazing.
“I also want to thank my family and my teammates for all of their support. I would not be in this position or be the athlete I am without them. When I am bringing in the flag, it is for all of them as well.”
Aoki is competing in his third Paralympics, after winning a bronze medal with the team in 2012 and a silver in 2016, in which the US lost the final to Australia.
The Paralympic Games features 4,400 athletes who will compete in 539 medal events, with Team USA taking 242 athletes.
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