After a brief break from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Paralympics are finally underway. Japanese American rugby player Chuck Aoki and triathlete Melissa Stockwell were elected by fellow Team USA members to serve as the flag-bearers for this year’s Games.
According to Team USA, Aoki and Stockwell will be the first to share the flagbearer title. In March 2020, “the International Paralympic Committee amended its policy to allow national teams to appoint two flag bearers – one female and one male – in promotion of gender parity. The IPC also required that at least one male and one female athlete be included in each of the 162 national delegations that will compete in Tokyo.”
Charles “Chuck” Aoki is a wheelchair rugby player and two-time Paralympian from Minneapolis. As part of Team USA’s wheelchair rugby team, he won a bronze medal in 2012 and silver in 2016, reports NBC Olympics. Aoki also serves as the Athletes’ Advisory Council Vice Chair, since being elected in 2017. He returns to the Paralympics this year as the rugby team captain.
Aoki was born with hereditary sensory autonomic neuropathy, a rare genetic disorder that inhibits feeling in the hands and feet. As a kid, he ran around and played with other kids, before realizing at age six that he had broken a femur.
“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,” he explains to Independent.
He started playing wheelchair basketball at age 7, but switched to wheelchair rugby after watching Murderball, the 2005 documentary on the US quadriplegic rugby team’s journey to the 2004 Athens Paralympics.
Aoki’s paternal family is from Japan and his great-grandparents immigrated to the US in the early 1900s. They, along with Aoki’s grandparents, were sent to Japanese internment camps during WWII. Following their release, Aoki’s grandfather served in the US Army.
In an Instagram post celebrating the honor, Aoki writes, “if you know a single kid with a disability, show them this picture. Help them see people, who use wheelchairs, with amputations, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries, and so many more disabilities, show them that they can achieve anything. Dream big. Keep looking forward. And never give up.”
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