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Paralympians Say Wheelchair Curling Opens Up Possibilities

Mar 10, 2018
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DON GONYEA, HOST:

The Paralympic Games are underway this weekend in South Korea. Athletes with a range of disabilities will compete in winter sports over the next week. And as Craig LeMoult of member station WGBH reports, members of the U.S. wheelchair curling team say discovering the sport has changed their lives.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Paralympian Meghan Lino navigates her wheelchair on the ice inside a huge, chilly room on Cape Cod, Mass.

MEGHAN LINO: Go ahead and give it a shove.

LEMOULT: A group of veterans in wheelchairs is on the ice today to learn how to curl. One of them grasps a pole and pushes a heavy round stone down the ice.

LINO: So now that you have your first one, let's try to get this one a little further than that one.

LEMOULT: The rules of wheelchair curling are similar to the version of the sport at the Olympics, except these players try not to slide on the ice. And they push the stones with specialized poles. Also, there's no team member slipping along, sweeping in front of the stone. So all of the aiming is done by the thrower.

LINO: This game is not a game of strength. It's a game of finesse.

LEMOULT: Lino's been in a wheelchair her whole life.

LINO: Born with spina bifida, I spent a lot of time in the hospital growing up.

LEMOULT: She says she was always a shy, quiet person who mostly kept to herself. But then about 10 years ago, she discovered curling. It's a social game and a team sport. And as she got better, she started traveling the world, going to competitions. And Lino says she's seen over time that curling has changed who she is.

LINO: Everybody on the team says I've really come out of my shell since I've started curling. I've grown up so much with this sport - maturity level and being more independent with everything in my daily life. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I'd be doing what I'm doing now.

STEVE EMT: Let me know where you want it.

LEMOULT: That's Lino's teammate Steve Emt. He positions a stone on the ice in front of another disabled veteran, Debra Freed (ph), who's trying curling for the first time. She pushes her pole. And the stone takes off.

DEBRA FREED: Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Come on. Yes.

LEMOULT: It slides to a rest inside the target on the other side of the ice. And Emt gives her a high-five.

EMT: Yeah, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIGH-FIVE)

FREED: Yeah.

EMT: (Laughter).

LEMOULT: Emt was an athlete and a veteran at age 25 when he got in a bad car accident.

EMT: I was a drunk driver. I tried to drive home, didn't make it. Fortunately, I'm alive.

LEMOULT: But that mistake changed his life.

EMT: You know, after something stupid, a bad decision on my part, I wake up a couple days - a coma. I wake up and was told I'd never walk again.

LEMOULT: It was 17 years later that he met Tony Colacchio, who had started the wheelchair program at Cape Cod Curling Club and now coaches the Paralympic team. Colacchio said Emt looked like he could be a Paralympian and asked if he'd ever tried curling.

EMT: And I'm like, A, what the heck is curling? And B, I heard Olympics. Where do I sign up? You know, I'll be an athlete. Let's do it. I went home, Googled the sport, came back, tried it and fell in love with it right away.

LEMOULT: Like Lino, Emt says curling has changed a lot more than just how he spends his free time. It's changed who he is. He says he used to be pretty intense. As a basketball coach, he was always screaming at officials and his players from his wheelchair on the sidelines.

EMT: And I get here. And it's just sort of taught me to chill out, you know? Calm down. Relax. And that has carried over to my personal life.

LEMOULT: He says his girlfriend remembers what he used to be like and is amazed at his calm demeanor. And he says it's all because of curling. Even so, he's still competitive. And this week at the Paralympics, he wants to win.

EMT: I'm just going to go out there and take care of business.

LEMOULT: Emt, Lino and the other members of the U.S. team are hoping to be in the gold medal match next Saturday in South Korea. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "THE PACIFIC NORTHEAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.