Charting wheelchair curling's evolution as Paralympic Winter Games approach

  • Korea will be hosts at the Paralympic Winter Games 2018 © WCF / Céline Stucki

Despite curling existing in some form or another for centuries, wheelchair curling is still a baby in comparison and continues to evolve.

As the Paralympic Winter Games Pyeonghang 2018 approaches, we speak to some of the athletes who were among the first to rise to fame in the sport as they continue to face challenges that come with para-sport.

Although difficult to pinpoint the exact origin date of the sport, wheelchair curling rose to prominence in 2000 after being introduced into competition at the World Handi Ski Championships in Switzerland. From there, the first World Wheelchair Curling Championship took place in 2002 and four years later, the Paralympics would introduce wheelchair curling in their programme for Torino 2006.

But, who would be the victorious skip in the first wheelchair curling tournament to be broadcasted to the masses? It feels only fitting that that skip still plays a huge role in promoting the sport to this day, through his blog - www.wcblog2.com/

Of course, to anyone who follows wheelchair curling, this person is Canada's Chris Daw [pictured below at first World Wheelchair Curling Championship].

Daw sprung onto the world scene in the 1980s as a track athlete, where he broke multiple world records as a teenager. He was regarded as one of the fastest track athletes in the mid-nineties, before taking up curling in 2000 after a car accident prevented him from high impact sports such as rugby and basketball, which he used to play.

In his ten-year curling career, he would pick up two world championship medals, three national golds and the aforementioned Paralympic gold. Since his retirement, he's dedicated his spare time to covering the sport from every corner of the globe.

"When I retired I decided to fill in the gap reporting for the sport because it wasn't being covered," says Chris, "There are bits here and there but at the time the stories that were being reported were really opinionated. Myself and another individual decided that we wanted to report on the sport without bringing the opinions into play."

Chris' approach to releasing as much information on the sport is what he believes has been the success behind the blog, but it also has its limitations, "There seems to be a shroud of secrecy behind some of the programmes or wanting to share any results or developments in the sport," he says, "I believe that if we could amalgamate everything into a basic foundation where we create this platform for results sharing or events or coaching techniques our sport would make bigger leaps."

Despite some frustrations in the coverage of the sport, Chris has recognised some great progress since his debut year.

"Back then we were dealing with games that had no set time limit. I remember at one world championship, one of the games took three and a half hours to play. You had to be a robust, patient player back then.

"We were also playing a team when a cell phone went off in the crowd and it turns out it was the opposing skip calling the coach, asking how to play the game against us. This was immediately not allowed, but it's a great example of how our sport started and where it is now.

"We were still trying to figure out a lot of factors in the game like whether or not handle rock delivery was proper or stick delivery was allowed and what the proper length of the stick was."
One athlete who plays a great part in this progression, is Patrick McDonald [pictured above at Sochi 2014, © WCF / Alina Pavlyuchik], one of the United States' most experienced wheelchair curlers. Having represented the United States in two Paralympic Winter Games and four world championships, he currently skips his own team, as well as representing wheelchair athletes on the World Curling Federation's Athletes' Commission. Issues from within the sport are raised by him in meetings, in which he feels there is still room for improvement.

"When there are rule changes for able-bodied athletes, wheelchair athletes want to know how those rule changes will affect them," says Patrick, "We do have other concerns, but the athletes' commission are still talking about that.

"Having the wheelchair world championships at same place as able-bodied worlds the week before or after has been brought up by wheelchair athletes too, as we feel this could help to bring more recognition to the sport."

Although the sport has now matured to a more sophisticated rulebook and saw an increase in participation, Chris still feels like there can be improvements.

"We need to focus on, not necessarily the development of the sport, but the acceptability of it," he says, "I believe that a marketing platform for the sport in a seamless integration process into mainstream curling is needed.

"I think the Continental Cup is the perfect platform for that to happen. If there is an expansion of points at the tournament to have an integrated game where wheelchair and able-bodied curlers are placed side-by-side then not only have we promoted our sport, but we've integrated it into an acceptable level of society."

"Bringing in wheelchair curling at events like the Continental Cup and integrate wheelchair and able-bodied teams together would be great exposure for wheelchair curling," says Patrick.

Of course, media coverage plays a huge part in the growth of the sport, but Chris feels that one of the main issues lies in the curling communities and the accessibility for wheelchair athletes.

"I know that it is mandated by Curling Canada to have integrated programmes for curling across the country, however, most of the curling clubs in this country were developed in the 1940s and 50s, so having programmes that are completely accessible is nearly impossible.

"Income is often a factor regarding participation. Often individuals with a disability have limited income so with limited income do you eat? Do you put new tyres on your wheelchair? Or do you play curling?

"Canada is a big country, so the distances between disabled individuals can make transportation difficult.

"It would also help the sport at least in my country, if there was an open tournament for the national championship, which in turn picks the national team. If any eligible team can register with Curling Canada for an opportunity to win a spot at the Paralympics, I think the sport will grow like crazy."

Yet, despite the difficulties that the veterans of the sport mention, the progress is there.

"There are a lot of newer countries trying to get into wheelchair curling at the world level, so it is growing," says Patrick, "I think with the right exposure and sponsors, we could possibly equal what able-bodied athletes have.

"Everyone that I have talked to still loves it," says Patrick, "The passion is there just like everybody else that's a curler, but I think one of the biggest things in wheelchair curling is we want equality. We want to be treated the same as able-bodied curling: to be live-streamed, to have the same kind of sponsors and to be treated fairly. There's no difference between what we do and what able-bodied athletes do.

"Other than sweeping."

With the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympics around the corner, it'll be worth keep a close eye on what the future holds for this medal discipline.

For all the curling action from the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 follow the World Curling Federation on Facebook (/WorldCurlingFederation) Twitter and Instagram (@worldcurling) and use the hashtags: #curling #PyeongChang2018

by Michael Houston, feature writer