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Adaptive Athlete: A Q&A With Paralympian Joe Delagrave

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– Sports/Recreation –

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

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.

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PUMPING IRONY: Not the Retiring Type

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One of the few prescient insights I can recall from my wayward postcollege days was the notion that a full retirement would surely elude my grasp. Social Security was certain to go bankrupt at some point, I figured, and even if it survived, the paltry income I’d earn as a freelance writer and editor would hardly translate into a monthly government check that would allow much in the way of work-free leisure in my dotage. Better to just grind away in scarcity mode, keep expenses to a minimum, and narrow my horizons. As Thoreau put it, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

The intervening 40-odd years have proven that life is complicated. I married, children appeared along with mortgages, car payments, and other financial realities. And, while I eventually began to earn a living wage at a succession of fragile publications, we struggled to put money away for the future. It was only after securing my current position several years ago that My Lovely Wife and I were able to begin building some long-term savings. But, like most of our peers, we’ve invested too little, too late to ensure that at some future date we’ll be able to pay the bills without a steady paycheck.

About 45 percent of our boomer compatriots have no retirement savings, according to a 2019 survey by the Insured Retirement Institute, and Social Security offers scant financial comfort: The average monthly check is only about $1,500. The future is notably brighter for the 31 percent of retirees who receive a monthly pension from their former employers, but that cohort has been shrinking since 1982, when Congress amended federal tax laws to offer fewer incentives for companies to maintain defined benefit plans.

“We’ve probably peaked in terms of retirement security — and it’s not great,” Monique Morrissey of the Economic Policy Institute tells reporter Will Englund in the Washington Post. “And now it’s all downhill. Unless something changes, we’re going to start seeing much more hardship.”

So, I was intrigued by a recent study from Georgetown University’s Center for Retirement Initiatives (CRI) describing the benefits of broadening access to retirement savings accounts for employees at all stages in their working lives. Currently, companies employing some 40 percent of the nation’s private-sector workers — 57.3 million people — offer no way to save. Mandating such options, while exempting small firms and making employer financial contributions voluntary rather than mandatory, would help individuals build their retirement savings over the long term. One model suggests that as many as 40 million more workers would have accumulated retirement funds by 2040 if these accounts were made widely available.

“Addressing the retirement savings crisis can be done in a simple, cost-effective way using private-sector solutions paired with a national requirement for employers to provide options to their employees,” says CRI executive director Angela Antonelli. “Millions of American workers would benefit from universal access to Auto-IRAs, 401(k)s, or other savings arrangements.”

Those benefits would also accrue to the overall economy, Antonelli argues, by adding up to $96 million to the nation’s gross national product by 2040 and reducing federal and state financial assistance to cash-strapped retirees by some $8.7 billion. Ten states have already passed legislation requiring companies to provide these options, she notes, offering ample evidence of its salutary effects. “Our research shows how expanding universal access to the national level can make a profound difference in individual lives and the broader economy in a relatively short period of time.”

I can’t help but applaud Antonelli’s optimistic view, though it’s hard to imagine how folks toiling away for minimum wage at some fast-food joint would find enough surplus in their monthly income to sock anything away in a 401(k). If I’ve learned anything from 50-odd years in the workforce, it’s how hard it is to adhere to a budget — much less save for a rainy day — when the checks barely cover the rent and groceries.

Besides, work isn’t always about the money. My ancient résumé is littered with jobs I sought because they offered a fresh occupational challenge or the opportunity to contribute to some broader social mission. Long-term financial planning was never a primary consideration. As struggling boomer retiree Terry Koch, 69, explains in Englund’s Post feature, for many of our generation it was more about enjoyment than anything else.

“We were a people who said we kind of like to have job satisfaction up front,” he says. “And so we didn’t think about the long run of things. To not be thinking about the future, to be more of a Zen thing. . . . And it wasn’t pure hedonism. There was some purity. And we’re still very much that way. I would rather be happy today than miserable 25 years from now. And so I made choices based on that rather than on the economics, which, you know, one could argue fairly successfully that I made some pretty stupid decisions.”

Forced out of the job market by health issues, Koch and his 70-year-old wife, Nancy, live in a rent-subsidized apartment in West Allis, Wis., and subsist on about $2,500 in monthly Social Security income. About $1,500 of that goes for rent and Medicare supplemental insurance coverage. There’s no savings. Yet, they soldier on more enthusiastically than you might imagine. “You know,” Nancy says, “neither of us thought we’d be alive at this age.”

It’s a sentiment that crosses my mind more than occasionally these days, and it often reminds me of my immense good fortune. A leisurely retirement may not await me in the years ahead, but just knowing I’ve made it through another day sometimes feels like money in the bank.


Craig Cox
is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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