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(published in SWEEP! d-Mag - December 2009)

Lots of trophies, different winners.

November has been the busiest ever month for international wheelchair curling competition. Korea, Japan, Great Britain and USA have all played in Canada, while Canada finished the month in Prague.

Honours have also been spread internationally this season. Russia won in Denmark, Sweden won in Switzerland, Great Britain in Norway, Canada in Scotland, Switzerland in the Czech Republic and USA in Ottawa.

The month began with the Richmond International Cashspiel, the only four person team event on this year's calendar offering cash prizes. It drew six teams to BC, including Korea and Alberta. With Jim Armstrong and Darryl Neighbour on home ice, Team Canada were unbeaten, outscoring the big-hitting Koreans 12-6 in the final to take the $1,000 1st prize. Armstrong is on record as saying that the wheelchair game will follow the able-bodied game and increasingly favour teams who can throw big takeout weight. The Koreans clocked several 6 second takeouts, and if they ever match accuracy to their weight, will be serious challengers.

Armstrong, Neighbour and the Korean squad also competed in a 2-on-2 Open tournament at Maple Ridge's Golden Ears Club mid-month. It's a format that remains the most viable for wheelchair users new to the sport. Curlers either throw or skip in alternate ends, avoiding the lengthy periods of just sitting around during the four person team game.

In Scotland, where Pairs competition is well established, 19 teams competed for the 2009 Star Refrigeration National Pairs Championship at Braehead. While all the members of Scotland's high performance squad competed, they each played with a teammate with less experience. That's how a strong national program is developed.

The 2009 Rolli Trophy in Bern saw Sweden top the league table, over Great Britain, the Swiss host team, Norway and Germany. Jens Jäger's German side may put their slow start down to attendance at a Berlin awards ceremony just before the competition, where they won Paralympic Team Of The Year for their bronze medals at the 2009 Worlds.

Japan, who have qualified for the 2010 Paralympics but did not enter any of this seasons western tournaments, played an exhibition against Canada at the Vancouver CC. Under the management of ex-Team Canada skip Chris Daw the club is now fully accessible on the lower level to wheelchair users.

Canada were soundly beaten by Japan on extremely fast ice. Perhaps more worrying for Canadian fans was Daw's observation that Japan seemed to adjust more quickly to the challenging conditions while Canada struggled with weight control.

Although Canada remain favourites for Vancouver gold, just as in regular curling, on a given day any team can beat any other. Finland, who have never played at a World level championship, showed that by beating Canada in Prague in what may be the final competitive tournament before the Paralympics.

Canada chose to travel to Prague rather than support the Cathy Kerr Memorial Spiel in Ottawa, because the Prague field was stronger. So it proved as they suffered an 8-4 semi-final defeat by Switzerland. They also gave up a 5, the costliest end in Armstrong's stewardship of the team. Switzerland went on to defeat Norway 7-1 in the final. This, with one change, is the same Swiss team that propped up the table at the 2009 Worlds. They have, however, in Manfred Bollinger, a very accomplished and experienced skip.

The US Open, an event that has in the past attracted Scotland and Canada, was squeezed this year by larger events the following weekend. Two Ontario teams traveled south to Utica NY and played a double round robin against two USA teams. USA 1 beat Bruce Cameron's Ottawa side in the final for the second successive year. USA skip Augusto 'Goose' Perez pulled off another signature last rock shot, a perfect hit and roll to the button for a single point and a 5-4 win.

Bruce Cameron's Capital WCC out of the R.A. in Ottawa hosted the 5th Annual Cathy Kerr Memorial Spiel to bring the 2009 tournament calendar to a close. Great Britain, two USA teams, Manitoba led by Chris Sobkowicz, Quebec and five Ontario teams played in the competitive division, with a further five in a recreational section. This made it the world's largest ever wheelchair curling tournament.

USA 1 beat last year's Ontario champions Team Gregory 8-6 in one semi-final. Great Britain, with Michael McCreadie calling the game from 3rd, beat Sobkowicz 6-4 in the other semi, but lost to USA 9-4 in the final. Gregory took bronze, 9-5 over Manitoba.

The CCA have launched a Take Part; Give it a Go campaign as part of their Discover Curling awareness initiative. It is aimed not only at increasing participation for the physically disabled but hopes to attract people interested in supporting new participants with physical disabilities. Every club has been sent a poster and copies of a brochure outlining how to get wheelchair curling started at the club level.

Experience shows that while exhibitions and give-it-a-go days are appealing, and with a bit of effort can attract local media, it takes someone at the club level to be committed to welcoming and mentoring wheelchair users, for a program to flourish. The hardest person to reach is the first wheelchair user, and the brochure outlines all you need to know to get started. Posters and brochures are available from the CCA's Danny Lamoureux.

There's a a lively debate over who should be eligible to compete in a wheelchair at events played under WCF rules. A wide range of people use wheelchairs, from necessity to convenience. With administrative attention focused on Paralympic glory, wheelchair curling is becoming the preserve of the super-fit barely non-ambulant, the "best available athletes" so beloved by organizations such as Canada's 'Own The Podium.'

This troubles long-time Paralympians like GB skip Michael McCreadie, who has witnessed the gradual drift and recent rush towards the super-fit as the only candidates worthy of consideration for national selectors, whose only mandate is winning.

"It's a question of fairness, of regaining the Paralympic ideal of people across a range of physical abilities being allowed to compete for their country,' McCreadie says. "I see non-paraplegics giving up, or worse not bothering to attempt to compete because they get the message that they have no chance of selection at the highest level."

It is easy to dismiss this argument by assuming high performance competition requires the least disabled qualified athletes. But the inclusivity argument is a politically powerful one. WCF vice-President Kate Caithness told The Vancouver Sun that what sold the International Paralympic Committee on wheelchair curling was its promise of mixed gender teams.

Should there be, as McCreadie advocates, two categories of players, such that every team includes a member who has a more significant degree of disability than, say, an amputee? Or should the eligibility rules be written so that wheelchair curling becomes a sport for anyone unable to curl without using a wheelchair? The matter will be discussed at the WCF's semi-annual meeting in Aberdeen this December.

My personal opinion is that if Canada's wheelchair curlers were allowed, like their able-bodied counterparts, to choose their own teams and 'win to play,' then there might well be a place for a more severely disabled curler who brings qualities other than physique to the team.

It is interesting to note that the German national team is essentially an athlete organised club side in which their third, Marcus Sieger, has flourished despite a level of disability that would have dismissed him from consideration by Canada's selection system.

Finally I would ask every reader to take a few minutes to discover who their representatives to the WCF Aberdeen meeting are, and ask them to insist that the WCF end its disgraceful exclusion of electric wheelchairs.

[See Agenda item 22 - Should electric wheelchairs be allowed at World Wheelchair Curling Championships? WCF Recommendation: Electric wheelchairs should not be allowed at World Wheelchair Curling Championships or their qualifying events.)

At the 2009 Worlds I asked WCF President Les Harrison why the ban was in place. He referred me to Kate Caithness who said she thought it was because of concerns by the WCF ice-makers, Peter Luk and Jorgen Larsen. When I spoke to Peter and Jorgen they admitted they had no experience of power wheelchairs - good or bad.

Dave Merklinger, manager of Vernon CC and one Canada's premier ice-makers, told me he has had plenty of contact with power chairs and seen no evidence that they damage the ice surface. His view is shared by club ice-makers across Canada.

Curlers using power chairs have more than enough obstacles to overcome without being victimised by discriminatory rules based on impressions rather than evidence. End the ban now.

Eric Eales - Kelowna, December 2009



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