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Wheeler, Brewer get shot at Rio

The day that Josh Wheeler's life changed so drastically is a blurry one.

All he remembers of a fateful day in 2006 is riding his motorcycle and then … badly injured in a hospital.

The Arizona resident, who has ties to the Rogue Valley, had been struck by a driver who didn't see him as she made a turn on a road in American Fork, Utah, where Wheeler was attending school.

Wheeler's neck was broken and he lost function of his lower body and part of the function of his right arm and hand.

This is where the tone of Wheeler's narrative shifts from sad to inspirational. He's no longer in a hospital or a rehabilitation center. Wheeler is now just hours away from finding out if he's made the United States wheelchair rugby team set to compete in the Paralympic Games.

Wheeler bounced back from the accident to earn a shot at playing in Rio de Janeiro, Sept. 7-18. The U.S. team will be announced late tonight after members spent this week at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. The 16-player group will be narrowed down to 12.

Wheelchair rugby, or "murderball," is a mixed-team sport for quadriplegic athletes. It will make its sixth appearance in a Paralympics Games after being introduced as a demonstration sport at Atlanta in 1996. Wheelchair rugby combines elements of rugby, basketball and handball.

Wheeler has been traveling the globe with USA Wheelchair Rugby, as has Josh Brewer, another man with local ties. Brewer, who played basketball for the Rogue Valley Scorpions, is also up for a spot on the club.

Brewer is a triple amputee who was run over by a train while living in the streets of Ethiopia as a child. He spent months in a hospital after losing both legs from below the knees and his right arm from below the elbow.

Wheeler's parents, Theresa and Kurt Sexton, live in Eagle Point. The 36-year-old Wheeler was born in Sacramento, Calif., and grew up in Days Creek, where he was a multiple-sport athlete.

Rugby came naturally for Wheeler, he says.

"I was always into sports, contact sports," Wheeler says. "The aggressiveness and strategy in rugby appealed to me."

Now one of the nation's top wheelchair rugby players, the San Tan Valley, Ariz., resident did some of his rehab work in Medford after being paralyzed.

Building himself back up was a lengthy process, Wheeler says.

"There was a lot of healing," he says. "Physically and medically. I damaged a lot of my body and that took time to heal up. The first half was just the healing process: how to breathe, swallow, tiny basic things. The second half was the physical rehab of learning life in a wheelchair. To me those were the fun things, like how to go up and down on curbs."

Wheeler tinkered around with wheelchair basketball but wasn't much good, he says. He eventually moved back to Utah and tried wheelchair rugby about a year after the accident. To his delight, Wheeler made the Utah Scorpions club team.

"I checked it out and fell in love with it," says Wheeler.

Fast forward a little, and Wheeler made the U.S. Quad Rugby Association's developmental national team. He later traveled as an alternate for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

"My shot at making the team this time is better than 2012," Wheeler says. "It is pretty exciting to think about wearing the name of your country on your back. That is something to be proud of."

From his lowest low to this highest high, Wheeler says staying positive has been vital.

"Sometimes it is hard going through something like that," says Wheeler, who is a former missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Sometimes there are moments when you are not sure if it'll work out. But if you put your mind to it and work hard and make the best of whatever you have, life is easier. You can be happy no matter what."

For Brewer, life is feeling more and more like a dream that he doesn't want to awake from.

"It would be crazy to make the team," he says. "It's something I've always looked up to. Getting to go out and represent your country would mean so much."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email djones@mailtribune.com. Find him onlineattwitter.com/danjonesmt

Josh Wheeler, whose parents live in Eagle Point, suffered a broken neck in a 2006 accident. PHOTO BY LUC PERCIVAL