UT alumnus pursues dream of playing wheelchair rugby in Paralympics

Blanche Schaefer

UT alumnus Jeff Butler faced a decision not many 25-year-olds have to make. Like most recent graduates, he wanted to pursue a career. But he also had the opportunity to pursue his lifelong dream: competing for Team USA in wheelchair rugby at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

“I’ve done a lot of soul-searching the past year — do I pursue this Paralympic thing and potentially delay some of my career goals?” Butler said. “But I’m pretty confident and comfortable with the choice I’ve made to go after the Paralympics because this is not something that I’m able to do later in life.”

Butler has been playing wheelchair rugby since high school. He played recreationally for the Indianapolis club team in his home state of Indiana. But his goal of qualifying for the Paralympics drove him to search for more competitive opportunities. Butler transferred from Indiana University to UT to play for Austin’s club team, the Stampede.

“The head coach of the club team in Austin also is the head coach of Team USA,” Butler said. “If you want to be the best and want to reach your goals, you go wherever your best chance of doing that is.”

Head coach James Gumbert’s knowledge and mentorship kept Butler motivated when he tried out for Team USA four times before making the cut. Butler upped his training regimen to five days a week, including practices, working on endurance, agility and court drills. He began focusing more on game strategy and technical aspects of the sport to meet the demands of playing for Team USA.

“[Gumbert] was the one who was saying don’t give up … on this dream of yours,” Butler said. “It’s also helpful to have a coach who’s incredibly knowledgeable about the game who can tell you in great detail what you need to be doing and why you need to be doing it.”

Butler also had a mentor in close friend and former teammate Emily Shryock. They were teammates in Indiana and both moved to Austin to play for Gumbert with the Stampede. Shryock is now the assistant director at the Services for Students with Disabilities at UT.

“Jeff’s always had the enthusiasm and the drive to become a great athlete,” Shryock said. “That’s one of the reasons he’s reached the level he has — because it wasn’t something he just talked about and wanted ­— it was really something that he was willing to work toward.”

Butler’s hard work and training is paying off. He returned home with a Team USA silver medal from the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge in London last week. Team USA lost by one point to Canada on the first day of the tournament. It then went on to win four games straight. But Canada again plagued the team in the gold medal match on the final day, defeating Team USA 54-50 to win gold.

“This is [Butler’s] first big international competition, so it’s been exciting to see him get to that point,” Shryock said. “We used to be at home together watching Team USA play games, and now he’s the one out there actually competing in them.”

Butler’s road to taking the court at the Paralympics next summer is far from over. The London tournament served as a measuring stick to gauge where Team USA stacks up against five of the top teams in the world, but they still need to get through a Paralympics qualifying tournament early next year.

Butler feels confident his team can do it. Winning a silver medal among the top-seeded teams in the world isn’t a bad start for the No. 2-ranked Team USA.