A different kind of curling rolled into the Freightliner of Red Deer Curling Complex at the Lacombe Curling Club this past Saturday.
There was no yelling of “hurry hard” or sweepers frantically trying to adjust the path of a stone, but there were about a dozen wheelchair curlers visiting from clubs in both Calgary and Edmonton in a few friendly matches.
The meet-up is a twice-annual event that normally happens in Red Deer, but with the 2019 Canada Winter Games just wrapping up, they made the decision to bring their adaptation of curling to Lacombe instead.
To them, it’s much more than just a sport, but something that gives them a reason to embrace their disabilities, rather than succumb to them.
“When you’re disabled, sometimes you can get extremely isolated,” said Calgary’s Alyssa Denis. “Wheelchair curling gives us that opportunity to get out, be social and be active.”
She said she knows what it’s like to be isolated. When she was first diagnosed with lupus, she ended up on bed rest for eight and a half years, until she got a service dog and started attending post-secondary, where she first learned about wheelchair curling.
“I had nothing in my life until I got my service dog and started curling,” she said. “It makes a huge difference to have a social group, something you can do, some people you can get out with, have a good time and do something active.”
Wheelchair curling is a relatively young sport. It began in Europe in the late 90’s and only came over to North America in 2002. That same year, the first World Wheelchair Curling Championship took place in Sursee, Switzerland, where the Swiss defeated Canada 7-6. In 2006, it was introduced as a Paralympic sport.
Aside from the obvious adaptation of having a wheelchair, they say the biggest difference from traditional curling is a lack of sweepers. This means wheelchair curlers have to learn how to be much more accurate in making their shots, analyzing how heavy their throws need to be, and how much spin to put on the stone – with the added challenge of throwing their stone using a stick, or cue extender rather than their hands.
They also don’t have the ability to pick up momentum pushing out of the hack, as they must remain stationary when making their throws, and will often have a teammate act as an anchor to make sure their chair doesn’t turn while they’re throwing.
While it may look a bit more like shuffleboard on ice, wheelchair curlers make it look a lot easier than it is.
“Kevin Martin came out to try it. He made five throws, said ‘pfft’ and gave up on it,” said Don Kuchelyma, an amputee from the Edmonton Rocks Curling Club.
Denis added that when playing able-bodied teams, their opponents will sometimes try and play without sweepers in the final end if they’re ahead, but struggle to find the same success.
Due to the sport still being in its infancy and there still being a lack of wheelchair curlers, it’s not uncommon for wheelchair curlers to play with or against able-bodied curlers, but it can put them at a disadvantage, given their opponents have the ability to sweep stones out of the house. They’ve already adapted to making shots without sweepers, too, so suddenly having them can seem unfair.
That’s part of the reason they’d like to see the sport grow across the province and get word out about it.
While there’s been attempts made in the past to get people in central Alberta out to try it during the meet-ups with Edmonton and Calgary wheelchair curlers, no one has turned out.
Warren Fleury, also from the Edmonton club, says their club has grown quite a bit over the years, and while there are quite a few who are hesitant to try it out at first, all it has taken is some time on the ice with everyone else to win them over.
“There’s a lot of members of our club that are like that. They won’t come out and do activities – maybe they’re new to the chair or just scared and we introduce them to curling and they’re always back,” he said. “It’s not just the curling. They say ‘you guys are just good to talk to.’ It’s like a little community.
“It’s a lot of fun just to be able to get out and be with people like themselves.”