Paralympics boosts wheelchair game

GEORGE KARRYS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

The conclusion to the week-long wheelchair curling event in Vancouver on Saturday marked a pivotal moment for the sport.

And yes, it is a sport.

Canada's last-stone, 8-7 championship win over South Korea was only the second curling gold ever earned at the Paralympic Winter Games, following the sport's debut four years ago in Pinerolo, Italy. In that time, the game has experienced massive growth and change.

VANOC's decision to organize the Paralympics on an equal par with the Olympics gave a huge boost to the disabled sport movement, and future Games hosts will be pressured to do the same.

The biggest media and television commitment ever made to the Paras -- while admittedly puny compared to the Olympics -- has raised awareness to new levels. Broadcasters were hounded for not showing hours of live wheelchair curling as they did for the able-bodied version in February.

Just one year ago, wheelchair curling was a six-end game, and it was the competitors who argued and lobbied to play eight ends. They fought for more equality with traditional curling, and they got their wish in Vancouver.

The shotmaking has improved tremendously, as the percentages continue to climb every year. Making half your shots used to be a good standard; now these athletes are beginning to approach the 70 percentile with regularity.

Just hours before a critical tiebreaker against Italy, Swedish fourth-thrower Glenn Ikonen was suspended from the Games -- and for the next two years -- due to a doping violation. Ikonen tested positive for the beta blocker metoprolol, which is used to control high blood pressure, and was sent home ... and his teammates rallied to beat Italy.

A doping violation in wheelchair curling? Who says these aren't athletes?

Korean skip Haksung Kim screams at the stones, despite the lack of sweeping. He believes they will listen, and move according to his wishes.

Less than two years ago, Canadian team skip Jim Armstrong won an eligibility battle to compete, and he withstood eligibility rumours ever since. Armstrong is not yet fully "condemned" to his wheelchair, you see -- incidentally, many disabled people despise the very idea of condemnation -- but he is well on his way.

The only wheelchair curler to ever play the able-bodied game, Armstrong competed in six Briers, losing one final. He also formerly served as a head official, and as one of the first presidents of the World Curling Players' Association.

ADVANTAGE

As such, he has a huge advantage over virtually all other wheelchair curlers, who have had to learn the sport without his experiences of nuance -- everything from strategy to ice reading to understanding stone movement with and without sweeping.

But his story goes further. It was years of knee injuries, followed by replacements, that ended his curling and his career as a dentist. A major car accident along the way didn't help.

Soon after discovering the wheelchair game and receiving eligibility, Armstrong won the 2009 worlds in his first appearance with Canada, at the same hometown venue in Vancouver. But more tragedy soon struck.

He suffered an arm injury, requiring surgery, and there were fears of him missing the Paralympics. Then his wife Carleen died of cancer in September. Then, another car accident. Through it all he persevered, won gold, and has always pointed out that his is just once incredible story in a sea of remarkable tales.

"Everybody that's here has their own story on how they got here, and it's every bit as big because there's that added factor," Armstrong said.

GEORGE KARRYS IS: CURLINGURU.COM


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