Preparing for the Sochi Paralympics
Published in The Curling News - December 2013
regained their World title in Sochi last February when Jim Armstrong
returned as skip after his abbreviated drug suspension. They did not
have things entirely their own way though, losing twice to Sweden before
beating them 4-3 in the final. Canada's 4 medals, all gold, since
Torino 2006 have come with Armstrong as skip.
Canada has won both previous Paralympic events, but changed their
preparation for Sochi 2014. Gone are the nicknames and "inventions". In
2010 coverage focused on Armstrong's phoenix-like rise from the ashes of
a Brier career ruined by bad knees. This year the role of spokesperson
has fallen on the slim shoulders of lead Sonja Gaudet. She is the one
holdover from Torino's 2006 gold medal team, and newly and deservedly
enrolled in Canada's Curling Hall of Fame. Gaudet is articulate and a
fine ambassador, but it is interesting if not disquieting that it is
felt necessary to keep Canada's wheelchair curling skip away from the
publicity that will surround Brad Jacobs and Jennifer Jones.
Praised by Coach Joe Rea and CCA High Performance Director Gerry Peckham
for exceptional team dynamics, the squad is unchanged from February: Jim
Armstrong (ON) skip, Dennis Thiessen (MB) 3rd, Ina Forrest (BC) 2nd,
Sonja Gaudet (BC) lead and Mark Ideson (ON) alternate. Ideson in
particular has caught Peckham's attention: "For a comparative newcomer
he shows great potential and understanding of the game."
Team Canada coaches expect each player to have a firm grasp on tactics,
even when skipped by a 6-time Brier competitor. More than one prospect
has had their hopes dashed by a perceived lack of tactical
understanding. This year, perhaps for the first time, Canada will field
a genuinely interchangeable 5 person team.
The decision to eliminate international travel this year has allowed the
team to visit across Canada, introducing local curlers and coaches to
Team Canada practices.
"This is an experienced team," explained Peckham. "They have already
traveled to Sochi, and played against most of the players they will meet
in March. We felt we could afford to concentrate on working with
Canadian curlers rather than international travel. And with 2014 almost
upon us, we must start thinking about 2018."
Canada have competed in just two competitions. An 0-2 start at the
Richmond (BC) Centre for Disability sponsored 7th Canadian Open kept
them out of the final, which was won by a tie-break draw to the button
by Alberta over Great Britain. They then played in the 9th Cathy Kerr
Memorial Spiel in Ottawa, an event that drew the largest ever
competitive field; 16 teams including 5 Sochi qualifiers: Canada, USA,
GB, Korea and Slovakia. Despite losing their opening draw 6-5 to an
Ilderton club team, Canada went on to beat GB in the final.
Great Britain, all Scots, have taken the opposite approach to Canada in
the run-up to Sochi, traveling extensively to give their squad of
full-time athletes the widest range of experience possible. It is an
approach that has brought medals: wins in Denmark over Norway, and at
Kinross over Sweden, were followed by silver medals against Alberta and
Canada, and a win over Russia at the 8th US Open in Utica. The Utica
event hosted 12 teams including Slovakia, Korea and USA among the Sochi
Tony Zummack, GB's full-time Canadian coach, told the BBC: "Choosing the
team early has given the core four athletes as much time as possible to
play and train together. We will have between 60 and 80 matches before
Sochi, which will be the most a GB team has played before a Games."
One noticeable recent development is the number of provincial and club
teams prepared to fund trips to events featuring international
competition. Canadian wheelchair curlers have so far been denied the
opportunity to participate in world events in the same way as regular
curlers; by winning their national event. The argument has been that
there were not enough talented curlers to move away from the CCA
selected Team Canada format.
Those who feel that the opportunity to represent your country on the
basis of your own team formation and effort is at the very root of
curling's success as an able-bodied sport, argue that central team
selection makes no sense if you want the sport to grow. The ability and
success of ambitious teams like Quebec makes it harder to argue that the
standard of play is not high enough to justify the national wheelchair
curling champions the opportunity to wear the Maple Leaf.
In other news, Scotland's multiple medalist Michael McCreadie may have
been retired from his national side, but remains very influential behind
the scenes as a WCF athlete representative. He is circulating a
discussion document (http://is.gd/rCKSJ3) inviting athletes and coaches
throughout the world to offer suggestions to enhance the game.
Those originating the sport understandably took regular curling as their
model. More than a decade later we are understanding that without
sweeping, wheelchair curling is a totally different game.
Four-person team wheelchair curling has not caught the imagination of
many Canadian wheelchair users in a country where most communities have
access to curling ice. Perhaps it is time to rethink how the game is
played in Canada, rather than allow the format and team formation rules
of Paralympics competition to stifle domestic participation.
Are mixed gender teams preventing the sport from growing, given the
imbalance in numbers between male and female wheelchair users? Would
two-person teams, with the reduction in time spent sitting and doing
nothing, create a better on-ice experience and lead to wider
participation? If you have an opinion contact Michael via the WCF
Eales has been writing about wheelchair curling since 2004, and
publishes the wheelchaircurling.com website.