Kylie Grimes: the first woman to win Paralympic gold in wheelchair rugby

Great Britain's Kylie Grimes celebrates winning wheelchair rugby gold at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics. Grimes is the first woman to win Paralympic gold in the history of the sport.
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Great Britain’s wheelchair rugby team made history on Sunday, defeating the United States 54-49 at the Tokyo Paralympics. The result marks Great Britain’s first ever medal in the sport.

With the win, one member of the British team also accomplished a notable feat: Kylie Grimes became the first woman to win gold wheelchair rugby. To put this in perspective: following Sunday’s victory, a total of 57 athletes (56 men and one woman) have won Paralympic gold in wheelchair rugby, a sport that made its official debut at the 2000 Sydney Games.

“Wheelchair rugby is for all of us – young girls, young boys, youth, everybody,” Grimes said after winning gold. “I would love to get more women involved in the sport. The more the merrier, I’d be delighted.”

While wheelchair rugby is a mixed gender sport, only four of the eight teams in Tokyo included a woman on their roster. And those four women actually broke the record for most women to compete in the sport at a single Paralympics:

  • Kurahashi Kae (Japan)
  • Kylie Grimes (Great Britain)
  • Sofie Sejer Skoubo (Denmark)
  • Shae Graham (Australia)

Grimes was the only returning Paralympian of the group. After making her wheelchair rugby debut at the 2012 London Games, she took a detour to track & field in 2016.

“It was always my dream to come back,” the 33-year-old said earlier this week. “I was always at home with the boys, at home with the rugby and that’s where I should have been. Back then at the time, there wasn’t really a line for me, there wasn’t really much going on and I wanted to try an individual sport and see where I could get.”

Kurahashi Kae of Japan competing against Great Britain in the semifinal round of wheelchair rugby competition at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.
TOKYO, JAPAN – Kurahashi Kae of Japan competing against Great Britain in the semifinal round of wheelchair rugby competition at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics. (Getty Images)

Like other Paralympic sports, wheelchair rugby uses a classification process to help ensure that winning is determined by skill and fitness, rather than degree of disability. Wheelchair rugby players are classified on a scale from 0.5 to 3.5, depending on the severity of their disability. Four players from each team are allowed on the court at a time, but the sum of their classification points can’t exceed eight. However, when at least one player on the court is a woman, that team is allowed up to 8.5 points. In other words, women essentially have 0.5 points deducted from their classification score.

Grimes isn’t the only woman to leave the Tokyo Paralympics with a wheelchair rugby medal. Kurahashi Kae (Japan) and Shae Graham (Australia) competed in the bronze medal match, with Japan claiming the victory. Both Kurahashi and Graham saw about six minutes of playing time.

2020 Tokyo Paralympics - Day 5
TOKYO, JAPAN – Australia’s Shae Graham (left) was one of four women competing in wheelchair rugby at the Tokyo Paralympics. She played six minutes in Australia’s loss to Japan in the bronze medal match. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Entering the Tokyo Paralympics, only one woman had won a medal in the sport: Canada’s Erika Schmutz, who claimed bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games.

NBC Sports’ Barbara Poskanzer contributed to this report. 

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC


How to watch the Tokyo Paralympics

NBC will provide over 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage. Here are some highlights:

  • A full Paralympic TV schedule (which includes an overview of coverage on NBC, NBCSN and Olympic Channel) can be found here.
  • Events can also be livestreamed on NBCOlympics.com and the NBC Sports app. More info is available here.

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”