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Sochi Preview
Published in The Curling News - March 2014

Sochi marks the third time that wheelchair curling, a mixed gender sport played on the same ice with the same rocks as regular curling, but without sweeping, has appeared at the Paralympics.

Canada won both previous golds. Will they three-peat? They have the same team that won the 2013 Worlds, in the same arena, facing the same opposition with mostly the same athletes.

Skip Jim Armstrong (ON) has decades of regular curling and 6 Briers to draw on. His four appearances for Canada have all produced gold medals.

Third Dennis Thiessen was a 2011 Canadian champion with Team Manitoba and made the squad in the fall of 2012, replacing BC's Darryl Neighbour.

Second Ina Forrest (BC) began as an alternate in 2007 and is now widely considered the sport's outstanding female thrower.

Lead Sonja Gaudet (BC) is one of just four athletes who have appeared in every World event from 2006, winning 5 gold medals and a place in the Curling Hall Of Fame.

Alternate Mark Ideson is the least experienced in years but exactly fits High Performance Director Gerry Peckham's preferred athlete profile; young, athletic and super-fit. He would probably skip the team in Armstrong's absence.

Canada are clear favourites, but with fewer teams prepared to allow opponents rocks in the house, Canada's advantage at skip may not be as decisive as previously. Last year Sweden beat Canada twice, though not in the final.

It's no coincidence that Sweden are skipped by the sport's next most experienced curler, Jalle Jungnell.

"I see Team Canada as the Big Red Machine, like the Russian ice hockey team of the early 70s," Jalle said, summoning his inner Paul Henderson.

"Canada is still on a higher level, but some teams have improved significantly," he noted. "USA have looked very strong at the last two Worlds, China is up there, and GB/Scotland seams to found a new higher level. Russia looked very strong 2012, but struggled last year, though you should always watch out for the home team.

"Our main focus and priority is not on Canada, but to reach the playoffs.If we meet Canada in a final we are confident after the wins last year that we have a 50/50 chance."

Tony Zummack, GB's Canadian full-time coach says he is completely comfortable with his team's preparation. "We have played 65 games, competed in 6 pre-Sochi tournaments, made 6 finals and won 3 golds.

"We declared our team (Aileen Nielson, Gregor Ewan, Robert McPherson and Tom Killin) very early, spent maybe 100-120 hours going over film, trained really hard with all the British curlers. We've worked on the 18 inch rule (that allows the stone to be delivered within that distance either side of the centre line). Aileen and Gregor will work as a team behind the broom for each stone.

"Now we just have to be patient, keep to the game plan and reach that 65% benchmark and perform the way we have all season."

He expects a lot more low scoring games. "Certainly if you see 8-6 scorelines in GB matches, then we will not have been performing according to plan," he said.

"I think the better technical teams all throw up-weight and straight. If you allow lots of rocks in play then anything can happen. We'll be trying to keep things clean."

Team USA's progress stalled after their bronze in 2008, with 4th place finishes in four of the next five years. A frustrated Assistant Coach Rusty Scheiber wonders why the team fades at the finish. He suggested it was attention to detail but a nine game round robin over five days is mentally tiring and takes experience to master.

In 2012 Patrick MacDonald, a hard nosed Army vet, replaced talented but temperamental 'Goose' Perez showing his commitment by uprooting his family from California to Wisconsin to be close to his coaches.

"I'm really proud of this team. (David Palmer, an ever-present Jim Joseph and Penny Greely) We've been training really hard and we are going for the podium," he said.

Korea have made a habit of reaching finals in even numbered years though their 9th place finish last year means that regardless of their finish in Sochi, they will, with Norway, have to re-qualify for the 2015 Worlds and the chance to gain the next cycle's Paralympic qualifying points.

Korea's heavy hitting style, that in 2008 shocked and awed opposition coaches, is now standard for many teams including 2012 World Champions Russia.

China, in a sport largely played by the middle-aged, remain comparatively young though with 4 tournaments and 2 Worlds bronzes no longer lack experience.

Slovakia and Finland are the wild cards. In 2012 Slovakia (6-3) shocked everyone when they made the playoffs at their first attempt, albeit in a year that Canada, Sweden, Scotland and Norway managed just 11 wins between them. 2013 saw that record reversed.

Finland qualified with a bare minimum of points from an 8th place finish in 2013, but beat Scotland in January's British Open final.

For those watching wheelchair curling for the first time, 65% shooting will probably be enough for gold. Freezes and hit-and-rolls will be made just often enough to entice unwary skips into ignoring higher percentage shots. Without sweeping you can't afford to be narrow with your broom, and though many teams will hit whenever possible, just as in regular curling, a last rock draw will most likely decide the game.

Below are the 10 Sochi Paralympics teams in the order they finished at the 2013 Worlds,  along with their record over the last 8 world events, including medal totals.

Canada - 8 events, 5 golds
Sweden - 8 events, 2 silver, 2 bronze
China - 4 events, 2 bronze
USA - 8 events, 1 bronze
Russia - 5 events, 1 gold
GB/Scotland - 8 events, 2 silver, 1 bronze
Slovakia  - 2 events
Finland - 1 event
Korea  - 7 events, 3 silver
Norway - 8 events, 2 gold, 1 bronze


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