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A year for training
Published in The curling News - December 2012

Last season’s World Wheelchair Curling Championships in Chuncheon Korea saw 2014 Paralympic hosts Russia win gold by beating the home side 9-1, their first podium finish. Bronze medallists China (average age 23) also made the podium for the first time, while rookies Slovakia were 4th.

This turnover of top teams speaks both to the competitiveness of international wheelchair curling, and the low barriers to entry for teams willing to devote the practice required to learn basic skills.

Perhaps wheelchair curling is a far simpler game to master than those coaches steeped in the able-bodied game care to admit.

Korea’s skip Hak Sung Kim, who won the Sportsmanship Award, attributed his team’s loss in the final to players tightening up. His refreshing analysis of the defeat: "Our players need to learn how to enjoy themselves more.”

Korea were the only team of the six who had won medals the previous three years, to achieve a winning record. Sweden and Scotland matched Canada's 3-6 performance, Norway fell to 2-7 and were demoted to this November’s qualifying round, and Germany did not qualify.

Canada had ready-made excuses for their collapse. Skip Jim Armstrong was sent home before play began for failing a drug test taken two months earlier. His vice, Darryl Neighbour, struggled with health issues that limited his effectiveness and playing time.

"No team, not even Team Howard could have overcome losing its back end immediately before a world level competition," suggested program director Gerry Peckham, with some justification.

Canada had travelled with six athletes, suggesting prior concerns. The miscalculation of Armstrong's eligibility and Neighbour's health, however, left Sonja Gaudet and Ina Forrest playing with two rookies, Jack Smart and Anne Hibberd, in a lineup without a recognised skip.

Chuncheon showed just how dependent Canada are on Jim Armstrong's decades of curling experience in a wheelchair sport barely 10 years old.

"Jim not only brings tactical understanding and ability to read the ice," said Peckham, " he brings out the best in his team mates. In 2011 he skipped the team to an 11-0 record at a level of performance previously unseen.”

Without him, Team Canada coach Joe Rea’s insistence that “there isn’t a coach that wouldn’t want these guys on their team,” while dutifully supportive, is less believable than Canadians may wish to admit.

Jim has now rejoined the team having had his original 18 month ban for traces of Tamoxifen, reduced on appeal to a “more proportionate” 6 months.

"Under the circumstances, I think it's as close to vindication as I can get," he told the Calgary Herald.

He leads Sonja and Ina in an eight member selection squad that sees the return of Torino gold medallist Gerry Austgarden, and four international rookies: Dennis Thiessen (MB), Benoit Lessard (QC), and Mark Ideson and Mike Munro (ON).

From a wholly BC based on-ice line-up post Torino, Team Canada is now more national: healthy for the sport's profile, though presenting logistical problems that the Brier and Scotties team based selection avoids.

"We are in the process of identifying coaches from across Canada who can oversee the practice and play of Team Canada members outside of camps, and identify new talent," says Peckham. That may also open avenues to players not presently known to the national staff. Ideson and Munro's national careers began with enthusiastic lobbying by their London ON coach Ernie Comerford.

Canada has devoted most of its budget this year to training, with just two events scheduled before the 2013 Worlds in Sochi, Russia: the Richmond BC International and Ottawa’s Cathy Kerr, the world’s biggest wheelchair curling event by entries.

Armstrong, playing with Thiessen, Munro and Gaudet, won in Richmond in early November. They avenged  their only round robin defeat by beating Patrick McDonald's USA  9-3 in the final. Canada II (Austgarden, Ideson, Lessard and Forrest) went 1-4. Line-ups in Ottawa at the end of November will be a better guide to the players' 2013 prospects.

World Championships are played in the three years between Paralympics. Participants earn points towards Paralympic qualification. The top eight finishers in the preceding Worlds earn an automatic place the following year. The bottom two teams must compete against other WCF affiliated countries in a November Qualifying Tournament for the final two places.

This year Norway and Italy were the newly demoted teams in a field of eleven that included three other Vancouver 2010 competitors: Switzerland, Germany and Japan.

Norway and hosts Finland, perhaps not coincidentally finalists at the Kinross International just 10 days earlier, claimed the qualification slots. Finland will be appearing in their first ever World Championship, while the Norwegians were World Champions in 2007 and 2008.

Norwegian skip Rune Lorentsen said: “It feels fantastic to have won. Many games at the 2012 Worlds were very close, so we felt we were very unlucky in Korea. But I don’t want to come down to the Qualification event again because it was very tough – there were some very good teams here. It’s not easy for anyone who goes down to get back up again.”

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Eric Eales has been writing about wheelchair curling since 2004, and publishes the wheelchaircurling.com website.