US paralympians spend weekend training in Janesville
JANESVILLE—From one end of the ice at the Blackhawk Curling Club on Friday afternoon, Patrick McDonald shouted instructions to his teammates at the other end.
“Do you want me to tuck one in?” Jimmy Joseph asked as he prepared to deliver his stone.
“Yeah, just come down to it. You’ve got Dave’s stone here. What do you think about this?” McDonald returned, pointing a broom to where Joseph should aim.
With one of his teammates behind him, bracing his wheelchair, Joseph thrusted his shooting stick—think outdoor shuffleboard stick— forward to release his stone.
The shouting began.
“Come on, come on!” Joseph, the man they call “Jimmy Jam,” said as the stone curled toward the house—a blue- and red-colored target. “God bless America!”
It was the scene that played out over and over for roughly eight hours on Friday at the club, which calls the Rock County 4-H Fairgrounds home. Five wheelchair-bound athletes took turns shaping shots, honing their skills and talking strategy. They were back at it again all day Saturday and for a bit on Sunday before it was time to head back to their respective homes.
Joseph’s shot was good, McDonald told him. Joseph’s eyes, through a pair of sporty white glasses, told a different story. It wasn’t quite good enough.
The opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics on Friday meant the Paralympics are less than one month away. And this Janesville jaunt is the team’s final full-group training session before it takes its turn in Sochi.
Who they are
Patrick McDonald and his family packed up in California three years ago and the group—his wife, Carrie, and two children—moved to Madison.
The team’s skip—the captain or quarterback of the group—needed to be somewhere where he could regularly get on good ice.
“Out in California there’s no designated ice,” McDonald said. “It was a big deal,” though other factors also made the decision to move a bit easier.
McDonald served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm, where he was stationed in South Korea. While there, he broke his back in a rollover vehicle accident.
The 46-year-old got into sports as a player of summer-sport games that are part of the Paralympics, competing in shooting and table tennis. He’s also an avid golfer, but he fell in love with curling when he first started playing in 2007.
“I threw once a week for two months and went to trials and made it as the nontraveling alternate for the U.S. team,” McDonald said. “I made the top five my second year … and I still think curling is as cool as ever.”
The stories of McDonald’s teammates feature that same fall-in-love story of curling, but the group is nothing if not diverse.
Dave Palmer, the team’s vice skip, was involved in an auto accident. He and Meghan Lino, the team’s alternate who was born with spina bifida, are members of the Cape Cod Curling Club and came to Wisconsin this week from Massachussetts.
Joseph, who lost his legs in an accident where he was pinned between two trucks while on the job, is making his third Paralympic appearance with the team and is from New Hartford, N.Y.
And Penny Greely, who was involved in a train accident growing up, just hit the Paralympic curling scene in 2011. From Green Bay, Greely quickly rose through the ranks.
“I didn’t think I’d be going to the Paralympics this soon; five months after throwing my first stone I was at the world championships,” said Greely, who previously won a bronze medal in the Paralympic Summer Games in sitting volleyball. “To know that I’m going back to the big stage is really exciting.
“I love this group. They’re my curling family.”
On the road to Sochi
When the Winter Olympics come to a close, they will essentially begin again right away, though on a smaller scale.
Paralympians will stay in the same spot as the Olympians and compete in the exact same venues.
“They’re making the same kind of commitment that our able-bodied athletes are,” U.S. Paralympic curling coach Steve Brown said. “During the course of the year, they’ve been to Canada a couple times and have been overseas.”
The trek to Sochi includes a stop in Munich, Germany, on the way over to “in-process”—getting their gear and anything else they’ll need before heading to Sochi.
“It’s the same opening- and closing-type ceremonies,” Greely said. “We’re in the Olympic Village. It’s the same protocol, just a lot less athletes and different sports.”
The sport of wheelchair curling is played relatively the same as the Olympic sport, too. The biggest differences are delivering the stone with a delivery stick and the fact that there are no sweepers in wheelchair curling.
At least one member of each sex has to be on the ice at all times. All five team members will travel and are eligible to play, though only four play at any given time.
“I’ve learned a lot more from them about life and adversity than I’ve been able to teach them about curling,” said Brown, a Madisonian whose daughter, Erika, and son, Craig, are competing for the U.S. women’s and men’s teams at the Olympics. Brown’s wife, Diane, played a key role in the development of the Paralympic curling team and eventually convinced Steve to coach in 2005.
“It’s amazing, their positive attitude,” he said. “They could be really bitter and sour, but these people are just the opposite. They’re happy to be alive and they’re going to make the most of it.”
Steve and Diane Brown own Steve’s Curling Supplies in Madison, and generally the U.S. Paralympic curling team would have conducted its final training session there. Conflicts with ice time had Steve Brown looking for other options.
“I can’t give enough credit to the Janesville club and their members for supporting us,” he said. “Over the last few years, this is the fourth or fifth time we’ve been down here. They prep the ice absolutely as close to ideal conditions as they can. They were here this morning. I’m really appreciative of the membership of Janesville.”
As Friday’s scrimmage on the Blackhawk ice waned, McDonald and Joseph traded spots, with McDonald ready to throw the last two stones of the end (or round).
“Jimmy Jam” set the mark to aim at, plotting a wide, arcing shot. McDonald released the final shot out to the left, and it eventually curled back to the right, finishing almost directly on the button (the curling equivalent of a dart board’s bull’s-eye).
Cue the whooping and hollering.
It’s the kind of shot that might be needed to help Team USA win its first medal in Paralympic curling next month.
But it just so happened to come on a bone-chilling Friday afternoon in Janesville, inside the cozy confines of the Blackhawk Curling Club.