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(published in Sweep Magazine - April 2006)

We Welcome Wheelchair Curlers

Wheelchair curling in Canada began in 2002, when a group of Ontario athletes skipped by Londonís Chris Daw, formed a default Team Canada and won silver at the World Championships.

The inclusion of wheelchair curling in the Paralympics and the awarding of the 2010 Games to Vancouver has spurred the interest of several provincial curling associations, and this yearís national championship drew teams from Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and BC. The event was won by Team Canada, still skipped by Chris Daw but with Gerry Austgarden, Gary Cormack and Sonja Gaudet of BC joining original member Karen Blachford. This squad, led by national coach Joe Rea, also captured the gold medal at the Torino Paralympics in March, defeating reigning world champion Frank Duffy of Scotland 7-6 in the final.

Curling seems an ideal winter recreation for the tens of thousands of people in Canada who use wheelchairs. Games are played with the same rocks on the same ice as regular curling and almost every community has a curling rink, with generally a ramp-able drop onto the ice for access. Equipment costs are minimal; no more than a delivery stick, often available for loan from the club.

Just about anyone with access to a wheelchair can play. Iíve shared the ice with paraplegics, quadriplegics, amputees, post-polios, people with MS, spina bifida, guys recovering from strokes and a couple with conditions so complex they defy easy description. You donít need big muscles to push a rock, even a take-out. Chris Rees, a quadriplegic who has his delivery stick duct taped to his hand, skipped Team Ontario to a perfect 5-0 round robin record at the Canadian nationals.

Age is no barrier. All you need to bring to the game is the co-ordination to exert a measured pushing force, and a tolerance for cold. Without sweeping, wheelchair curling is not an aerobic activity.

So with curling often the social centre of Canadian communities, and so many people using wheelchairs, why has wheelchair curling been so slow to develop a following?

The most obvious reason is that too few people know about it. Clubs donít reach out to wheelchair users because they donít come into contact with them. Wheelchair users donít contact clubs because they are unsure of their welcome. This is an all too familiar chicken and egg situation. Why go to the expense of ramps and accessible bathrooms when nobody asks to use them? Because without them, there is no point in asking.

Most curlers would welcome wheelchairs if they understood that they do not damage the ice, and that wheelchair users are willing to integrate into leagues with and against able-bodied curlers. You donít need to have a league full, or even a team full, of wheelchair users to begin. They will also buy refreshments at the kitchen and a drink at the bar if they can get to it.

We need a ďWe Welcome Wheelchair UsersĒ national campaign, with a bumper sticker label on the door of every club in Canada. At first, very few wheelchair users would see it, but most curlers know someone in a wheelchair, and word would quickly spread.

But the onus is not just on the able-bodied to reach out to wheelchair users. Disabled athletes have to advocate their own cause, either individually or through the various sports associations that serve them.

CurlBC has been very generous in its support of wheelchair curling over the past 3 years, starting programs in 4 communities. But this kind of sponsorship can also breed dependency, or worse, a sense of entitlement; an expectation that someone else will organise where and when to play, and pick up the tab for travel and accommodation.

While it is true that disabled athletes as a group are not financially well-off, and many could not afford to pay club league fees out of their own pocket, they are very plausible candidates for sponsorship. Curlers in the Okanagan formed a team and produced a sponsorship brochure with player pictures, biographies, team goals and a commitment to publicise sponsors. A tire company, a service organization, and a medical supply company among others paid for league fees, jackets and embroidery, equipment, training camps and a wheelchair cashspiel. Two members of that team won gold in Torino.

Not every wheelchair user will have the knowledge or the personal resources to make their own way into a new sport. Give-it-a-go days sponsored by associations, clubs and coaches can be great advertisements for the game. If you want to try your hand at coaching wheelchair curling, borrow a wheelchair and a delivery stick and spend some time on the ice getting the perspective of someone sitting down. Then contact local disabled sports organizations and offer your services.

The number of players competing in at least one weekly league game has fallen over the past year. Perhaps the possibility of being on a provincial and national team was oversold. Perhaps BCís policy of coach-selected provincial teams, rather than playdowns, provided a disincentive for existing players to reach out to new recruits, and potential competitors.

Just as likely, too many of those who have tried wheelchair curling decided not to continue playing because it did not maintain their interest. Unless you are skipping there is a lot of sitting around in the cold waiting for your turn.

Wheelchair curling needs an evangelist who can sell the sport. Self-identified wheelchair athletes are not sitting around idly wondering what to do with their time. They need evidence of a structured training program and a defined path towards excellence. The far larger group of people who may watch curling on television but who have never considered themselves athletes, need to be enticed on a social and community level. Clubs and coaches need to be encouraged and perhaps reassured that people in wheelchairs are just regular people, sitting down.

Most of all we need some imagination and minds open to new ideas. Regular curling may be what we know, but it is not necessarily a good model for the wheelchair game. Similarly WCF rules that presently direct the sport, may be more suited to the small curling communities of Europe than to Canada with tens of thousands of potential participants. Yes, our international team will have to play under WCF guidelines, but curling in Canada has always been about more than a national team.

This is still a very new sport. The rules are in flux, the traditions unset. Best practices have yet to become fossilized into conventional wisdom. There's no reason why on a wheelchair team, the lead or second can't skip. There's no particular reason why a team should be 4 players. 2 works just as well if you can deliver a rock without needing to be braced. It could be that the future of wheelchair curling lies not in attempting to copy regular curling, but in joining the growing sport of stick curling, playing 2 on 2 without sweepers.

Eric Eales

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