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Preparing for the Sochi Paralympics
Published in The Curling News - December 2013

Canada 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 qualifiers.

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 website.


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