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(published in SWEEP! Magazine - November 2007)

When is a wheelchair curler not a wheelchair curler?

When he (or she) does not use a wheelchair for their daily mobility, according to WCF eligibility rule 2g. Enter all-round good guy and 6-time Brier competitor Jim Armstrong whose playing career was curtailed by knee injuries. Though he is still ambulant, a Canadian sports classifier said Armstrong was eligible for domestic play. He was given a wheelchair and invited to try out for the national squad by friend and former Brier team mate Gerry Peckham.

Hopes for Armstrong's return to competitive ice were dashed when the WCF ruled him ineligible for the Worlds and Paralympics.

"We do not believe there is any ambiguity in the classification guidelines which have met with the approval of the International Paralympic Committee," said Kate Caithness, WCF Vice-President for wheelchair curling, in answer to a direct question about Canadian fears that ambiguities in classification might lead to an uneven playing field.

Strong grassroots opposition to Armstrong's invitation appeared to take Canadian coaches by surprise. "I don't see a downside," said Peckham when warned that his decision to include Armstrong would be controversial. "Either we gain a player of enormous experience and presence on the ice, or we gain a valuable coaching resource."

National team coach Joe Rea also reported his squad comfortable with the decision.

Collinda Joseph, who competed in the 2007 Ontario playdowns, spoke for many full-time wheelchair users and curlers not presently sponsored by the CCA. "This is a very big disappointment and I personally think, a slap in the face to wheelchair curlers in Canada," she said. "[It] does not support the policy of long-term athlete development."

Peckham is clear, however, that selection will depend execution. "Even if Jim [had been] declared eligible by the WCF, he [would] still have [had] to be one of the top four in execution to get on the team."

This is good news for the two quadriplegics on the squad. They have been assured that their opportunity to represent their country will not be affected by their need for attendant care, as may have been the case in other less well funded sports.

Despite much having been made of "athleticism" as an important criterion for Paralympics selection in the "Own The Podium" report, Peckham says he defines athleticism as ability to execute on the ice, an enlightened attitude for which he is to be applauded.

The national squad competed in Prague in October, and will travel to spiels in Oslo and Utica, NY before the 2008 World Championship team is selected on December 10th.

In The Money

Last March the CCA announced that the Toronto Stock Exchange had agreed to donate $400,000 in support of the Discover Curling initiative. Part of the money from this program (four year budget $650,000) will go to support wheelchair curling at the grassroots. How much? "It is safe to say we will be spending a lot of money on wheelchair curling," said the CCA's Danny Lamoureux. "It is tough to say what the exact amount is as many of the projects and promotion materials overlap."

Gold medal Paralympics skip Chris Daw is now under contract with the CCA as Development Coordinator for Discover Curling, working primarily with special needs communities. He has already run a well attended weekend wheelchair clinic in Winnipeg, and other clinics are scheduled for Halifax, St. John's, Montreal, and Thunder Bay with future plans to include PEI, Yukon and Saskatchewan.

Coaching tip

If you or someone you know wants to try curling from a wheelchair, here's a tip I learned from Michael McCreadie, twice World Champion and likely GB skip in 2010.

When you first push a curling rock, do it from close to the rings. Try to get a delivery motion that feels comfortable and that you can repeat, whether from the side or the front of your chair.

The harder you push the harder it is to maintain accuracy. By starting close to the target, you'll help preserve your accuracy while you're still learning how to push and rotate the rocks. When you have an accurate delivery, gradually increase the distance the rock has to travel.

Michael also says when he invites an able bodied curler onto the ice to coach his team, he asks them to use a wheelchair. That way the coach sees what the curlers see.

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,

Eric Eales - Kelowna, September, 2007

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