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(published in Sweep Magazine - October 2007)

Team Canada berths wide open

The 13 wheelchair curlers in the National Team Program Athlete Pool have been told they start the season with an equal opportunity to wear the maple leaf at the 2008 World Championships in Switzerland.

The squad includes last season’s Team Canada, four of the 2007 National Champions from BC, and invitees from Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.

They face a heavy schedule of camps and national and international bonspiels with events proposed for the Czech Republic, Oslo, Utica NY, and Vancouver. A four year $400,000 grant from the Toronto Stock Exchange supporting curling programs for people with disabilities, is helping ensure the effort to own the podium in Vancouver 2010 is generously funded. Team Canada’s first competition is the Prague Invitational, October 19-22, where they placed 3rd in 2006.

"We'll be fielding different combinations of players this season," said Gerry Peckham, the CCA's High Performance coach in overall charge of the wheelchair program, "For one thing there are too many events to expect athletes with full time jobs and families to be available for every occasion. We don't want to limit Team Canada membership to the single and unemployed."

Peckham is upbeat about Canada's prospects. "As coaches we are on a journey discovering how different wheelchair curling is from the able-bodied game. We are still adjusting the training, searching for the combination of delivery skills and tactical approach that will give Canada the best chance of success. A wheelchair team that curls 60-65% has an excellent chance to win at the international level.

"As a coach I believe that players can always improve and it is our task to make that happen. As selectors we'll be looking for execution skills, understanding of the game, and the ability to perform as part of a team."

Canada faces increasingly tough international competition. At the 2007 Worlds last March in Sweden, Norway beat Switzerland 5-4 on a measurement to win gold. The Scots, the only team to gain the podium at both the 2006 Paralympics and the 2007 Worlds, beat Canada 7-4 for the bronze.    
At home BC won the 2007 Canadian Nationals in Ottawa beating Alberta 4-2 in the final. Ontario and Manitoba were the only other competitors this year.

Recreational curlers wanted

The special commemorative 25 cent wheelchair curling coin has raised the sport’s profile, but encouraging wheelchair users to curl remains a challenge. Britain and the USA have both created staffed national development programs to increase participation.

Canada relies on provincial organizations to recruit players. Curl Ontario coach Tom Ward hopes to have at least four teams compete in provincial playdowns this season. As with other eastern Canada provinces, Ontario clubs tend to be older and often inaccessible. He is hoping to team up with local service organizations that can help sponsor wheelchair athletes and also help fund access projects.

Curl Atlantic are currently looking into the prospects of fielding an Atlantic team at the 2008 Nationals in Winnipeg, and may host the 2009 Nationals. Lower Sackville (Halifax NS) is one of the very few if not the only Atlantic curling club with full wheelchair access, and has recently had a threat of closure lifted.

Alberta will be looking to replace the energy of indefatigable coach Ernie Comerford, who has moved to Ontario. Manitoba coach Elaine Owen will carry on the pioneering work begun by Chris Sobkowicz, who has decided to devote his energies this year to attempting to break onto the national team.

Saskatchewan’s technical director Amber Holland remains hopeful she can get some wheelchair users out this season. “We have the facilities and the coaches,” she says, “We just haven’t had the hoped for response to our recruitment efforts.”

CurlBC hopes that regional teams will form to compete in the BC Winter Games, revitalizing their program. This season will see clubs in every region of BC with elevator access to their lounges. Osoyoos held the season’s first wheelchair curling bonspiel at the beginning of September, sponsored by Olson Curling Supplies. It used the increasingly popular 2-on-2 stick curling format.

Stick curling is a great way for wheelchair users to get involved in curling at the club level. You only need two on a team. You are either throwing or skipping so there’s no down time. Games last about an hour, and there’s little or no sweeping.

If you or someone you know uses a wheelchair, consider trying stick curling, or starting a stick curling league at your local club.

As always you can find news, results, articles and resources for all aspects of wheelchair curling at www.wheelchaircurling.com

See you on the ice,

The 13 Squad members

Present Team Canada carded athletes

Chris Daw – Ontario

Gerry Austgarden - BC
Gary Cormack - BC
Sonja Gaudet - BC
Ina Forrest - BC

Team BC 2007 National Champions

Darryl Neighbour
Frank LaBounty
Whitney Warren
Jackie Roy

Other Invitees

Bruno Yizek – AB
Bridget Wilson – AB
Chris Sobkowicz – MB
Ken Gregory - ONT

by Eric Eales - Kelowna, September, 2007

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