Josh Wheeler is a high-scoring member of both the University of Arizona and Team USA wheelchair rugby teams. In addition to winning several national championships as a Wildcat, he is a two-time Paralympic silver medalist. He also is a passionate accounting major with a 4.0 GPA. He spared time to answer our questions about being an elite athlete and a Wildcat for life.
Q: You once said that you fell in love with rugby when a player from the Utah wheelchair rugby team invited you to a practice. What happened for you that day?
A: So I really loved football growing up. It wasn’t necessarily the sport I was best at, but it was my favorite sport. When I had my accident, I was no longer able to play football ever again. Part of what I missed about it was the contact, and part of what I missed about it was the strategy. And so when I went to that first practice in Utah, I was terrible at it, but I could see the contact. I could see the strategy involved. Wheelchair rugby is kind of like full-contact chess. And that’s what I was missing at that point, so that’s why I was excited to play wheelchair rugby.
Q: What has your experience on the University of Arizona wheelchair rugby team been like?
A: It’s been a great experience with a great team. We are one of the top teams in the nation. We’ve made or won nationals almost every year for close to a decade. And we have created a good family together. When we go to a tournament, we each typically have a roommate, and we’re all friends. It’s fun to have friends on the team instead of just teammates.
Q: What have you learned on your journey as an elite athlete?
A: Something very important I’ve learned is that winning is fun, but being successful, being proud of who I am, matters more. So, for instance, [at the Paralympics] in Rio and in Tokyo, we lost in the gold medal game both times. It’s hard to lose. But Rio was very tough for me because I was solely focused on rugby, whereas in Tokyo, when we lost in the final game, I had my wife and kids to come home to. I also had to come home and finish school. The evening after the gold medal game, I was doing homework in Tokyo because I had already missed the first week of school. And so, I’ve learned there’s a lot more value to me than just athletics. I am not just an athlete; I’m a lot more than that.
Q: At this point, you're already a decorated Olympian. What's next for you?
A: I plan to finish up my athletic career at the 2024 Summer Paralympic Games in Paris. I’ll probably still play wheelchair rugby at the club level and can enjoy the sport that way, but I won’t be competing at the elite level after Paris. I’ve loved playing rugby — I’ve loved being on Team USA and traveling the world doing it. It’s been an amazing experience. And so I am going to be a little bit sad letting that go, but it will be time.
Luckily, at that point, I’ll also be ready to start working as an accountant. I’m planning on finishing my bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2023 and beginning my master’s soon after that. Every time I take a class about accounting, I enjoy it more. It’s not for everybody, but it is for me. I love it.