VANCOUVER – The silvery head of Jim Armstrong is barely visible in the centre of a swarm of school kids seeking his autograph surrounding his wheelchair.
It’s as if Armstrong is a rock star. He is, sort of. He’s the skip of the Canadian wheelchair curling team at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.
Armstrong, 59, has been throwing stones on curling sheets since 1958. But his knees, which have undergone 14 operations, have been crippled by curling, standing all day long as a dentist and by a serious car accident. So the Richmond resident switched to curling on wheels.
He’s been to the Brier – the Canadian men’s curling championship — six times, twice as a skip. It’s the highest level of the sport. But this week beats it all.
“I’ve got to tell you, and I’m not belittling the Brier experience, this truly in my experience is second to none,” said Armstrong.
“Forgetting the anticipation before the event, but I’ll tell you when we wheeled into BC Place [for the opening ceremony Friday] night, if that didn’t blow your socks off it should have. It was absolutely unbelievable. It was packed, and it was hummin’ and it was all Canadian. It was a great experience, and we’ve just carried on from then.”
During Monday’s afternoon draw, the stands at Vancouver Paralympic Centre were packed with elementary-aged school students on a field trip of a different kind.
“I believe we’ve hit a new generation of curling fans,” said Armstrong with a smile. “When we’re at the Brier, it’s a little more sophisticated, a little more subdued, a little more mature than at the Olympics. Certainly at our event the crowds are younger, more boisterous, and they just seem to enjoy themselves a lot more.”
They certainly enjoyed what Armstrong and his teammates – third Darryl Neighbour of Richmond, second Ina Forrest of Armstrong and lead Sonja Gaudet of Vernon – delivered, which was a 13-2 spanking of Japan. (Canada later lost 8-4 to Sweden, which went into the day winless, in the evening but still retained first place at 4-1.) Every time a Canadian stone took out a Japanese one, the kids, between chants of “CAN-A-DA,” would let out huge shrill cheers. They were almost as loud as the Norwegian team’s baby blue, white and black check, pajama-like pants on the next sheet.
“I might be 61, but I feel like I’m 24. I’m loving every minute of it. It’s just amazing,” said Neighbour, who lost the use of his legs in a construction accident in August 2000. “It is so far above and beyond my expectations. From the moment I wheeled into BC Place for the opening ceremonies my heart has been fluttering and it hasn’t stopped yet.”
To keep his heart in check and to stay focused, he wrote on the back of his left glove, “Breathe twice” and on the right one he put “The Process.”
Deep breathing got rid of the jittery feelings Forrest, 47, experienced before Canada’s first game. Even though she’s been to three world championships, the Paralympics are quite different. Before every game, as the players are being marched out onto the ice, she scours the crowd and gives a wave to her family.
“It’s new for us to have such a large crowd,” said Forrest, whose legs were paralyzed in a car accident in 1984. “Being a hometown crowd it’s really good for us, lots of cheering at the right times. Sometimes the crowd is a little exuberant but it’s great being at home knowing your family’s here.
“It’s nice to know where they are in the crowd.”
Armstrong’s grasp of curling strategy is a powerful weapon for Canada, and it was evident Monday as he played nice taps and guards to constantly put Japan, skipped by Yoji Nakajim, in trouble.
“You cannot put a value on his knowledge. It’s priceless, it’s amazing,” said Neighbour, who grew up in Northern Alberta, even helping his father build a two-sheet curling club in Elmworth on the B.C. border when he was a teen.
Said Forrest, “His ability to read the ice and call the right shots at the right time makes a huge difference for our team.”
Even Armstrong acknowledges it’s an advantage, although he also he’s had to adjust his thinking because sweeping isn’t allowed in the wheelchair game and it’s not possible to throw the high, hard ones to wipe out two, three or four opposition rocks at a time like Olympic champion Kevin Martin can.
“I would not be naive enough to suggest it’s not a factor,” said Armstrong of his experience. “In all fairness I’ve gone through a learning curve myself, without the sweeping, without the big hits. You want to try and simplify the game a bit because you just don’t have that help. So while everybody else is going on a learning curve on the way up, what I had to do was peel the strategy back a bit, and then start to rebuild it now as our whole team matures.”
Gaudet was on Canada’s gold-medal squad in Torino in 2006. She said besides the crowds and the awareness of the Paralympics in Vancouver, the other big difference is in how good the teams are getting.
“There isn’t the gap [in calibre] between the teams like there was in Torino. You maybe saw five strong teams in Torino and a bigger gap between the rest. But that doesn’t seem to be the case any more,” said Gaudet.
“There’s a better understanding of the game, and also, everybody’s gotten better technically around the world. We’re just learning better ways to throw the rock, better ways that work for disabilities.”
She also gets to have her family experience these Games with her.
“When I was in Torino I just wanted my family to be a part of everything. You can’t really explain what it’s like there, and now they get that feeling. It’s nice,” said the mother of two.
The Canadian quartet, coached by Joe Rea of Prince George, has been getting together twice a month. Otherwise, Armstrong and Neighbour play on the same men’s league team in Richmond while Forrest and Gaudet – play together at the Vernon Curling Club.
Some facts about wheelchair curling:
• No sweeping is allowed, which means there’s no “Hurry Hard!” yells
• It’s a coed game with at least one player of each gender
• A stick is used to propel the rock from the centre line from behind the hog line opposite the house the rocks are being thrown at
• The thrower’s wheelchair is steadied by a teammate holding it from behind
• Games are eight ends, with an extra end if the teams are tied
• Eligible players are “restricted to individuals with significant impairments in lower leg/gait function (i.e. spinal injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, double leg amputation) who usually require a wheelchair for daily mobility.”