July 23, 2021

‘It’s just an awesome opportunity’

Faith and family help an Olympian live his dream amid hardship and heartbreak

Joe Schroeder powers forward as he prepares to live his dream of representing the United States on the country’s rugby team in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Travis Prior)

Joe Schroeder powers forward as he prepares to live his dream of representing the United States on the country’s rugby team in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Travis Prior)

By John Shaughnessy

June 26 was a day of excruciating waiting for Joe Schroeder.

It was the day when the news would arrive in an e-mail as to whether the dream he had worked so hard and so long for would come true or end in devastation—his dream of being chosen as an Olympic athlete representing the United States in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo from July 23 to August 8.

The June morning began for the 2012 graduate of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis by attending Mass with his parents and other family members from Indianapolis at a church in the San Diego area. That’s where the 28-year-old Schroeder has been training since 2017 with the goal of becoming a member of the U.S. Olympic rugby team.

Those four years have been marked by a crushing shoulder injury that required surgery and nearly a year of grueling rehabilitation. Much harder, his life has been touched by the death of his brother Will, at 22, in 2020.

All of that further fueled Schroeder’s already-roaring fire to live his dream.

After spending most of that June day with everyone trying to distract him, the e-mail finally came.

Schroeder slipped away to his bedroom to open the news alone, leaving his parents, two brothers and a sister-in-law in another room. He knew there were 12 spots on the team. He also knew the spots would be listed by jersey numbers, and that the jersey numbers for his position were 2 and 5. Using an index card, he slid down the selections by each number. His name wasn’t next to the 2.

“At that point, I was on the edge of my seat with all of this,” he recalls. “I knew it would be a tough situation between me and some other guys.”

Taking a deep breath, he slid the index card past 3 and 4, bracing himself as he prepared to look at the number 5.

He focused on the name next to the 5. It was his. He yelled the news into the other room.

The celebration and the outpouring of emotion began. Cheers, hugs, tears. Everyone jumping up and down for Joe Schroeder, Olympian.

In the midst of all the joy, Schroeder told his mother Susan that he knew Will was looking down on him, sharing in the moment.

‘I want to make this dream a reality’

Every Olympic athlete has an uplifting story, but Schroeder’s path to the Olympics also includes physically lifting up people.

After playing rugby for four years at Cathedral, he went to college at Trine University in the northern Indiana community of Angola to pursue a civil engineering degree. Trine didn’t have a rugby team so Schroeder tried out and became a cheerleader, a role that included using his strength to lift female cheerleaders in the air during games.

After graduation, he moved to Ohio to take a job with an engineering company and pursue a master’s degree in his field at Ohio University in Athens. At the same time, he missed playing rugby so he joined a team in Columbus. His coach saw the talent and desire he had so when the coach learned that one of the

U.S. rugby coaches was coming to a training academy nearby, Schroeder’s coach encouraged him to go.

Schroeder’s size—6-foot, 5 inches and 225 pounds—caught the attention of the U.S. coach. And his performance impressed the coach enough for Schroeder to be invited for a week to play at the Olympic training center for rugby in Chula Vista, Calif.

After that week, Schroeder returned home. Then he got a call to come back for another week. And that led to an invitation to train with the U.S. national rugby team.

“Once I got noticed, I put a lot of time into checking out the national team,” he recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the team that went to the Olympics in 2016! I want to make this dream a reality, and this is the first step.’ ”

It was also his first step in a journey across the world. He has played in Dubai, England, France, Australia, China, Singapore, New Zealand and South Africa. And every trip and tournament intensified his desire to be part of the U.S. team when they traveled to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics.

The journey has also had its hardships and heartbreak.

Halfway through his first season with the team, he dislocated his shoulder and tore his labrum and rotator cuff. Nine months of rehab followed, and it would be nearly another three months before he was back playing in a tournament.

“An injury in sports is always tough,” he says. “I wanted to be out there playing. I was having such a good time with the team and doing well. It definitely tugs at you. But you always keep in mind that you want to get back to where you were. That helped me.”

The pain of losing Will cut so much deeper.

‘He was my biggest fan’

Rugby is a fast, sometimes brutal sport, marked by crushing hits at times, but nothing has struck Schroeder, his parents and his four other siblings harder than the sudden, heartbreaking death of Will.

“This is the toughest thing my family and I have been through,” Schroeder says. “It was really tough. He was my biggest fan.”

When Joe decided to move to San Diego to live, Will helped him drive his truck cross-country from Indianapolis and stayed with his older brother for a few days, the two of them hanging out together and loving the time they shared. And Will would always ask Joe for sportswear from the national team, proudly wearing a jersey that connected him in one more way with Joe.

“The Olympics were supposed to happen in 2020,” Joe says about the Summer Games that were postponed because of the international COVID crisis. “My family was planning for it, to be there. Will was going to come.”

Now Joe is taking Will there in spirit, knowing his younger brother further fueled his Olympic dream.

“That was a tough thing for us,” he says. “It’s turned into an additional motivation for me. I want to make him proud. I’m rocking one of his hair styles now—a mullet. When I look into the mirror on game day, it’s a reminder of who I play for and why. It helps me.”

So does his Catholic faith.

“The one constant in all of our lives is our Lord and Savior,” Joe says. “He’s helped me through all of this. I pray to him every day. He gives me the strength and the courage through the hard times and to live my dream. I couldn’t have done any of this without him.

“My Catholic faith has shaped my life in a really good way. I know it’s helped my family a lot, especially through what happened to my brother.”

‘We’ve always put our faith first’

Jim and Susan Schroeder and their children have been longtime members of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Carmel, Ind., in the Lafayette Diocese. Following Will’s death, the family needed the support, comfort and prayers of their parish community. Their community was there for them in so many ways, the Schroeders say. They’re especially grateful to their pastor, Father Richard Doerr.

“We couldn’t have survived this without him,” Susan says.

“Faith has always been at the forefront of everything we do,” Jim says. “We know without faith we would not be anywhere. We’ve always put our faith first and taught that to our children.”

While Jim had been raised in the Lutheran church, he and Susan were married in a Catholic church 35 years ago, and they sent their six children to a Catholic grade school and high school.

Jim had faithfully attended Mass with the family through the years, but he hadn’t been received into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Father Doerr extended that opportunity to Jim in the months following Will’s death. Jim embraced it and became a Catholic during a private Easter Sunday night liturgy in 2020 with his family and Father Doerr.

“It was a very beautiful and meaningful time for our family,” Susan recalls. “We’re all still pretty raw after the loss of Will. He is deeply missed by all of us, but there have been many beautiful things.”

Those moments of beauty and meaning include being together with Joe when he received the news about being selected as an Olympian.

“We were so happy,” Jim says. “Joe’s been wanting this for three years. We were overcome with emotion.”

Because of COVID concerns, no fans will be allowed at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. So, the Schroeder family members are prepared to get up at home in the early morning hours—when matches will likely be played because of the time difference—to watch televised or livestreamed broadcasts of Joe and his team competing. There’s no doubt their pride and emotion for Joe will be at a fever-pitch.

“He’s worked so hard,” Susan says. “It’s been a difficult few years with his injury and his loss of his brother. He’s been so driven and passionate about this goal. It’s quite exciting that he’s getting to live his dream.”

It’s a dream he gets to live with his teammates and coaches. It’s a dream he has long shared with his parents, his sister and his four brothers, including the one he believes is still cheering for him from heaven.

“It’s just an indescribable feeling,” Joe says about making the Olympic team. “I put so much work into this. It’s just an unreal opportunity to represent my country, my family, God and everyone. It’s just an awesome opportunity.” †

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