Adaptive Athlete: A Q&A With Paralympian Joe Delagrave

After a boating accident left him paralyzed at 19, one athlete found his passion in wheelchair rugby — and encouraging others to overcome obstacles.

Joe Delagrave plays wheelchair rugby.

A lifelong athlete, Joe Delagrave was at the top of his game playing Division II football at Minnesota’s Winona State University. On July 10, 2004, a boating accident on the Mississippi River left the then 19-year-old paralyzed, shattering his dreams of an athletic career — or so he thought. Delagrave spent 89 days in the hospital, relearning how to do everything, including getting dressed, and using utensils to eat.

As he figured out how to maneuver in a wheelchair and wrestled with his life’s path, Delagrave made “a choice to move on,” with the support of his family and his faith. He completed college, obtained a master’s degree in counseling, and took up adaptive rugby to fulfill his competitive drive. He also launched a career as a motivational speaker. Delagrave is currently training for the Tokyo Paralympics, which have been postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus.

We recently caught up with Delagrave to learn how he’s adjusting his training schedules and keeping his mindset strong.

Experience Life | How has the coronavirus crisis affected your training?

Joe Delagrave | The coronavirus has completely changed the map of 2020 for me and my family.  Training camps, competitions, and the Paralympics have all been canceled. My normal routine at home changed as well. I now train with three kids running around the basement, or riding bikes outside, or having them help me with certain aspects of the workout. Looking back, it has been awesome to have so much family time with my wife and kids and still maintain a good fitness foundation.

EL | With the 2020 summer Paralympics postponed until 2021, how have you adjusted your mindset? How have you shifted plans with your team?

JD | The recalibration didn’t happen right away. I needed time to process all the emotions of the postponement and give myself grace as we all went through it together.

After I took some time to pause, I realized I needed to shift my focus to the reality of my environment. I now was at home 24/7 with three kids, two of them in online school, and trying to rethink my speaking business. It was chaotic, to say the least! However, through the time I took to pause and recalibrate, I realized that I needed to train for the sake of mental wellness more than peaking toward anything. My goal was to keep a solid foundation, stay healthy, and give myself a lot of grace so I could be the best husband and father throughout this whole crisis.

EL | Describe your training routine.

JD | My normal routine before the coronavirus crisis was working out five to six days a week. I would usually lift three to four days a week, and do cardio three to four days a week. We, as a team, typically have between five and seven training camps that can be anywhere from five to 14 days long.

During this crisis, my training has been similar as far as the days go, but my access to lifting heavier weights has been eliminated, and my cardio level has gone up. As I’m getting older, I’m learning to listen to my body — rest is just as important as high-intensity training — and to control what I can control.

EL | What motivates you in your athletic pursuits?

JD | My faith and my family. This is as cliché as it gets but so true for where I get my motivation. I train hard knowing that I’m doing it for a greater purpose than just myself. I train hard knowing that my wife and kids are home cheering me on and supporting my athletic pursuits. I train hard knowing that these opportunities are such a blessing! 

EL | What have you learned about grace and adaptability?

JD | Here’s what I’ve learned: We all have circumstances. We all probably have something in our lives that we’ve considered an obstacle. A “wheelchair,” if you will. The choices we make after realizing the wheelchair is there are what sets us apart. What I have learned is that I am passionate about servant leadership, connecting with others, and inspiring and motivating people to find their passion-and-purpose intersection in both career and life. As a keynote speaker, I help my audience realize that we all have a choice in whether or not our circumstances define us. Most of us fall into the trap of using our circumstances as an excuse for where we are instead of reaching for our full potential.

I haven’t let my paralysis since the age of 19 keep me from dreaming, setting goals, and taking action. It has been surreal to see some of those dreams become goals and turn into a reality. My career in wheelchair rugby, my role as a captain for seven years, and my experiences have helped me realize we get that choice! My audiences leave my keynotes understanding that it’s on us to look into the mirror and choose to have a victor mindset. The obstacles we face in life present us with opportunities to learn how to implement our passions and find the connection to their purpose.

Learn more about Delagrave’s work and find links to connect at www.joedelagrave.com.

is Experience Life’s managing editor.

Photo credit: Lexi Branta Coon

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