Canada's Team in Wheelchair Curling

By Ben Hamill - January 27 2015
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This year’s Canadian National Wheelchair Curling team that will compete in the World Wheelchair Curling Championship in Lohja, Finland between February 7 and 13, will have a somewhat different makeup than the teams that have dominated international play in recent years.

Meet the Team

Because of ill health, veteran skip Jim Armstrong will be unable to compete.  Mark Ideson will assume skipping duties and will throw first rocks.  Ideson has championship experience at the international level having served as an alternate on the team that captured the gold medal at the World Wheelchair Championship in 2013 in Sochi and having been an alternate on the gold medal winners at the 2014 Winter Paralympics.  Amazingly, Mark began curling only in 2010!  Ideson was injured in 2007 when the helicopter he was flying crashed.  He had been an active able-bodied athlete and found in wheelchair curling a chance to compete athletically and enjoy the camaraderie of team play.  When a friend suggested wheelchair curling, Ideson first feared that he wouldn’t be able to throw the rock, all 19 kilograms of it, the length of the rink!

Veteran vice-skip Ina Forrest, who has two Paralympics gold medals, most recently on last year’s champions, will compete once again and will handle the crucial last rocks.  Before her accident, Ina was an avid equestrian.  She has learned to ride despite her limitations.  Ina has also spoken about the intense training she goes through in order to maintain her world-class competitive edge.

Sonja Gaudet, who was also on last year’s Paralympics champs where she carried the Canadian flag at the opening ceremonies, has, all told, three Paralympics golds to her credit, will be second.   Sonja suffered a severe spinal injury in a spill from a horse in 2000 when she was an active thirty-four year old.  Her wheelchair has not prevented her from continuing to be an active athlete as she swims, rows, and cycles in addition to playing basketball and tennis.  In 2013 Sonja became the first wheelchair curler to be elected to the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame.

Rounding out the team is third Dennis Thiessen, also a veteran of last year’s Paralympics team.  Thiessen lost a leg in an accident on the family farm in Manitoba when he was 17 years old.   Dennis was one of the founders of Manitoba Farmers with Disabilities, an organization that actively preaches farm safety to farmers of all ages.  Dennis is also active at his home rink, the Assiniboine Curling Club.

Marie Wright, a member of Team Saskatchewan which won the Canadian Wheelchair Curling Championship in 2012, will be making her first appearance on the national team, as an alternate.  Marie became a paraplegic as the result of an auto accident in 1988.  She took up wheelchair curling in 2008.

Joe Rhea is returning as coach.  Joe was thought to have been paralyzed from the neck down at 14 years of age from a football injury.  His story is one of miraculous recovery from a severe spinal injury.  One week after suffering a broken neck, he began to feel his extremities. Years of painful recovery later, he was once again walking and running, although he is still partially paralyzed in his upper extremities.  He is an inspirational speaker.  He and his wife, Colleen, have been foster parents to 27 young people in the past 15 years.  His main task as coach is to help his athletes attain the level of precision needed to succeed at the world level. He must also blend the members into a truly cohesive unit even though both the skip and the alternate are new.

About Wheelchair Curling

Wheelchair curling has become quite popular in cold-weather countries.  The game is currently organized in 26 countries.  Wheelchair curling is similar to able-bodied (regular) curling but it has two major differences.   The rocks are delivered from a stationary wheelchair and there is no sweeping. When wheelchair curling began, it was thought by some to make the rink shorter and the rock lighter.  Both ideas were defeated and today the wheelchair curler has obstacles to overcome in addition to the obvious one of limited mobility.

The rocks can be pushed by hand or by a delivery stick.  This makes the throw much more difficult in wheelchair curling than in regular curling.  In regular curling, the thrower achieves momentum in her or his approach to the throw line.  In wheelchair curling, the thrower must provide all the energy.

The second big difference between the two forms of curling is that there is no sweeping in wheelchair curling.  This again puts enormous pressure on the thrower to throw accurately and forcefully.

Honorable Challengers

Canada is ranked first in the world owing to her recent dominance, but expects stiff competition from the other nine national teams in the competition: United States, China, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Slovakia, Scotland, Russia, and Germany.

Round robin play begins on February 7.  The top four teams begin the playoff rounds on the 11th.  Hopefully, our curlers will be competing in the gold medal game on February 13 at 7:00 am Eastern time.