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World Championship preview
Published in The Curling News - February 2012

As in Vancouver 2009, this year's World Wheelchair Curling Championships will inaugurate a new Olympic and Paralympic facility which organizers insist will be finished before the ten teams show up for practice on February 15.

For the first time since 2009 Canada will not compete as defending champions. Jim Armstrong returns as skip after his appeal-reduced six month doping suspension. He leads a squad with plenty of experience. Though Darryl Neighbour is awaiting surgery, Sonja Gaudet (BC) has played lead since Torino in 2006, and Ina Forrest (BC) has thrown second stones since debuting as alternate in 2007.

The team has two rookies; Mark Ideson (ON) though a relative newcomer, fits Canada’s preferred profile; young, athletic and fit. He will call the game if Jim were unable to play. Dennis Thiessen (MB) has won medals at four Canadian Nationals.

Canada, skipped by an elite able-bodied curler with decades longer experience than the wheelchair sport has been in existence, are favourites. Though Jim may not be an all-star thrower, his understanding of the game, reading ice and calling only the shots that can be made, is a huge if not insurmountable advantage. Without Jim Canada have failed to make the podium since 2006; with him they won three successive titles.

Canada may be favoured but the reality of wheelchair play, despite the occasional spectacular shot, is it remains a game of misses. Tony Zummack, Scotland's Canadian coach, goes further. “Until a team throws at or above 65% the outcome is a lottery,” he claims, having run the numbers from the past several years.

They show, according to Zummack, that for teams throwing less than 65% “you might as well toss a coin to decide a winner.”

Most teams in most games throw somewhere in the 50s. Scotland, who matched Canada's 3-6 performance in 2012, had significantly higher team stats (though still under 60%) than in previous years when they made the podium.

So is wheelchair curling really a lottery? Of last year’s playoff teams, only hosts Korea had the pedigree to suggest a medal. Yet they were joined by Russia and China, qualifiers in 2008, and rookies Slovakia, while the more experienced teams faltered.

It is a sport with low barriers to entry. Canada's program director Gerry Peckham explains that wheelchair curling is "predominately a simple execution-based sport (where a new).somewhat athletic player could establish new performance standards within a year of dedicated and mindful practice."

Zummack and Peckham have a natural bias towards thinking coaching can lift teams out of the lottery zone. Sweden’s skip, Jalle Jungnell who has been playing from a wheelchair longer than anyone, is more skeptical. "Every year we hear that standards are rising. What is certainly true is that more teams are throwing hits, a higher percentage shot.” In 2009 blank ends were a novelty. Now they are commonplace.

Perhaps what is happening is that teams are bunching, with less difference between top and bottom.

Who will be Canada's chief challenger? “Russia looks really strong,” says Team Canada coach Joe Rea. “So does Korea, but there will be no easy games.”

Traditional foe Scotland have a full time coach spending at least two days a week on ice with his top players. Aileen Nielson is in her fourth year as skip, now supported by 3rd Gregor Ewan. Tom Killin, who has been part of the team since Frank Duffy was as dominant as Armstrong is now, remains at second and Gill Keith and Robert McPherson lower the team's average age. Zummack thinks Scotland can do well if the team maintains its confidence in the face of inevitable setbacks.

Sweden, after taking bronze in Vancouver, have disbanded, rejoined, disbanded and again rejoined for a last hurrah with Jalle Jungnell at skip. "Last year we were punished for our lack of preparation," he says, (they equaled Canada and Scotland at 3-6) "and this year we are again short of preparation." But with Glenn Ikonen returning, they have enough experience at this level to secure their minimal aim of avoiding relegation.

That was the 2012 fate of twice champion Norway, who had to fight through a strong qualifying field last November to rejoin the championship. They also won in Denmark and Scotland, but have had to make a last minute change to their team, Ole Fredrik Syversen replacing Per Fagerhoi. Their skip, Rune Lorentsen, is a notoriously poor traveler, and will appreciate the comparative proximity of the Sochi site. Norway took bronze in Prague 2011, bracketed by 9th places finishes in distant Vancouver and Korea.

Korea changed the game's tactics when their up-weight throwing en route to a silver medal in 2008, shocked international coaches into redefining wheelchair curling as a hitting game. In 2009 they spent the week squabbling with their coach. In 2010 they almost pulled back an 8-0 halftime deficit in the final against Canada. In 2011 they again fell back. In 2012 they made another final. Will 2013 be an off year? They have the power to win, especially if the ice is straight.

Another team with fearsome power is China. Their athletes are based at the sports rehabilitation centre at Harbin, where disabled youths are selected for training in whatever sport most closely fits their physical profile. It is a young and very athletic team with a low delivery style, faces close to the stone, that would be a challenge for some of the more rotund European players.

Last year Russia came from nowhere to win it all. Will the home crowd prove an inspiration or distraction? Russia travel more than any other team, gathering the experience they hope will bring gold at next year's home Paralympics.

USA have completely rebuilt the team that has fallen one game short of a chance of a medal in four of the last five years. Skip Patrick MacDonald, an alternate in 2009, moved his family from California to Wisconsin to be closer to his coaches, proof of his determination to achieve that elusive medal breakthrough and gain the publicity that will expand the sport nationwide.

Finland are making their first Worlds appearance and may find the jump in competition challenging. But then that’s how I felt about Slovakia last year and they made the playoffs.

The 2013 Worlds run from February 16-23 in Sochi, Russia. Canada has a tough start, opening against Korea, Scotland, Russia and China. A full schedule is available at http://is.gd/NoCvQc


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