(published in Sweep Magazine - April 2006)
We Welcome Wheelchair Curlers
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
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
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
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
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
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
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