Wheelchair Curling: Rock That House!

By |2017-01-13T20:41:40+00:00November 1st, 2015|
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The U.S. National Team at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi.

The sport of standing curling first caught my eye at those 2010 Winter Olympics when the Norwegian men’s team wore curling pants that were so colorful, loud and over the top that they now have their own unofficial Facebook page (www.facebook.com/NOCTP). I was surfing through the channels on my television one night when I saw those pants. I stopped surfing long enough to hear the party in the stands and the announcers speaking in a language spiced with jargon that sounded almost as wild as the Norwegian pants looked. Rock? House? Hogline? Bonspiel?

The flash got my attention, but as I watched the sport I realized there was so much more to it than the party and the fun. Curling was a game of strategy and control.

Come for the pants, stay for the strategy. That’s me in a nutshell.

It wasn’t until the winter of 2013 that I finally decided I wanted to take the plunge and try wheelchair curling. I was between back surgeries, feeling too much “I can’t” and looking for something new to explore.

First off, I turned to the Internet, where I found a world of curling articles, videos and pictures. After daydreaming briefly about frolicking in wild pants at the Paralympics in my international curling debut someday, I got down to the serious research.

I learned that one of the great things about adaptive curling is that it requires a lot less strength and physical ability than a lot of other adaptive sports. It’s a matter of pushing with a stick. It is also a sport that doesn’t require obtaining a lot of specialized equipment. Come as you are with your own wheelchair and stick. Club dues and fees are generally the biggest financial commitment for a recreational curler.

Author Paula Larson shows how she uses the delivery stick to slide the rock into the scoring zone.

Author Paula Larson shows how she uses the delivery stick to slide the rock into the scoring zone.

The sport of wheelchair curling was adapted from the sport of ambulatory curling in the 1990s. There are four people on each mixed-gender team, and all members take turns pushing the “rocks” (most wheelchair curlers routinely curl in standard curling leagues, so recreational rules may vary). The basic premise (this is my simplified version — it’s actually very strategic and requires a lot of teamwork) is that you sit in your chair and use a delivery stick to push a 44-pound rock 120 feet down a sheet of ice and try to get as close to the center of a 12-foot wide target (the house) as possible.

Most of the rules are basically the same for both standing and wheelchair curling, except wheelers don’t have the sweepers that standard curling does, and you use a delivery stick to push the rock instead of your hand. The goal in both types of curling is for your team to try to get your rocks closer to the center than your opponents’ rocks and to have a lot of fun knocking each other’s rocks out of the way and blocking the path of the opponent’s rocks. It’s kind of a cross between shuffleboard and lawn bowling. Just, you know, on ice.

Yes, I said “ice” and “wheelchair” together. Behold the wonder of curling!

After the Internet research I decided that I wanted to give it a try. The USA Curling webpage led me to a curling club about an hour north of me, so I contacted that club.

I need to take a timeout here to tell you that this was my first big lesson of adaptive sports, and people bent over backwards to help me get involved, which has held true for every adaptive sport opportunity I have experienced since then.

The curling club didn’t have a wheelchair group, but they’d had wheelchair users in the past, so they had a portable ramp to the ice. Not only that, but they knew a coach who lived a couple of hours south of us who had worked with people at my local club in the past, and they got in touch with him on my behalf. Then he got in touch with me and offered to spend an evening showing me how to wheelchair curl for free. And the curling facility let me and the coach spend a couple of hours on their ice for free.

It still amazes me how generous and patient people are when it comes to new participants in an adaptive sport. We are blessed to have some amazing partners out there.

So I took this amazing coach and amazing facility up on their respective offers and I went curling.

Curling 101
Before heading out to try curling, you need to dress for curling. You’ll be sitting in a chair on the ice for a long period of time. Unlike standing curlers, we wheelers do not generate much body heat while curling, so it gets cold. As much as I adored the whimsy of the Norwegian curling pants, I opted for long underwear and insulated ski pants, an insulated jacket, insulated boots, stocking hat and gloves. Even with all of that, I got a little chilly.

Prior to heading down the ramp onto the ice (“sheet”), I learned that curling ice is tended with reverence. The quality of the ice determines the quality of the experience. Unlike an ice rink, curling ice is actually textured (“pebbled”), which is how you get the rock to move across the ice and to spin in the direction you want (“curl”). You need to respect the integrity of the ice. Tires get cleaned off before getting on the ice. Then you roll your chair around a bit to cool the tires off on the out-of-play section of the ice, so that your warm tires don’t melt spots on the playing surface. It’s all about the pebbles (kind of like respecting the well-tended greens in golf).

All curlers learn to respect the integrity of the ice. Larson was surprised how easily she could maneuver her chair on the rink.

All curlers learn to respect the integrity of the ice. Larson was surprised how easily she could maneuver her chair on the rink.

Now I’m from Northern California and have lived in the Pacific Northwest for over 15 years, so ice is not my native surface. I was concerned that I wouldn’t get any traction on the ice and that someone would need to push me. And I hate being pushed in my wheelchair. So I was pleasantly surprised when I could move quite easily in my chair on the ice. I really wanted to get up some speed and spin some donuts, but that would not be respecting the ice. Too bad, that would have been a blast!

While the basic idea of curling is pretty easy, and it’s not difficult to move the rock down the ice, it is not easy to make the rock go where you want it. Not to mention you take turns with your opponents, so there are people knocking your rocks out of the way and placing their rocks in front of where you want your rocks to go. How rude!

I could go into a lot of details (and there are a lot of details), but here are the basics that I learned on the ice. The delivery stick slips over the handle of the rock, and a small, smooth rotation of the wrist determines whether the rock curls left or right. So the movement of the rock is determined by how hard you push, how much you spin, the condition of the ice and your ability to combine the three factors to make the rock go where you want. That’s a big part of the skill involved. The strategy comes when you match wits and skill with the opposing team.

It sounds simple but it’s hard to be good. Like most sports you can get as serious about it as you want to, but at its heart, curling is a social sport where the real goal for most participants is to hang out with friends, have fun and enjoy some good-natured competition.

If you want to try curling, contact your nearest curling club. There is some type of curling presence in 45 states in the United States and across Canada. Keep in mind that wheelchair curling is really still becoming established as a sport. If you are the facility’s first wheelchair curler, you may have to blaze the trail at the club.

Many clubs have open houses where the public can come in and try the sport for free. Talk to someone at the club before you go. Make sure they have the accommodations to get you down on the ice, someone to help with instruction, and delivery sticks for you to use. Make sure you clearly communicate your needs to them (manual wheelchair versus power, if you might have trouble gripping the delivery stick, etc.). Keep in mind that many of these facilities are older and may not have accessible restrooms and other facilities.

Now get out on the pebbles and rock that house!

Resources
• Wheelchaircurling.com, www.wheelchaircurling.com
• USA Curling, www.teamusa.org/usa-curling
• World Curling Federation, www.worldcurling.org/about-wheelchair-curling
• Paralympic Wheelchair Curling, www.paralympic.org/wheelchair-curling
• Wheelchair Curling Instruction Manual: A Beginner’s Guide, www.curling.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Instruction-Manual.pdf