‘You need to see things from different heights’ – how wheelchair curling is unique

© WCF / Alina Pavlyuchik

The organisation for any international competition takes months of planning, but different disciplines need to cater to different needs. The same applies to able-bodied and wheelchair curlers. Aside from the clear differences, like no sweepers and the use of a stick to push the curling stone, wheelchair curling is also full of intricacies that need to be thought about when organising a event.

At the World Wheelchair Curling Championship 2020 in Wetzikon, Switzerland, some of the most pivotal personnel spoke about what, from their perspectives, differs when they come to a World Wheelchair Curling Championship and what makes it succeed.

Jiri Snitil is the World Curling Federation’s Technical Delegate and handles the logistics of competitions and is responsible for making the championship run smoothly.

“It’s about pulling everything together,” said Snitil, “I’m responsible for the technical and support side of the event which means working with the players, officials, organising committee and Member Associations.”

For example, he visited the Swiss town six months prior to the start of the championship to consider any problems that may disrupt the running of the event. The on-site visits for Wetzikon included looking at the venues from a wheelchair perspective.

© WCF / Alina Pavlyuchik

“You need to check the arena, the hotel, if there’s accessible toilets – everything. You need to have the understanding around disabled access.

“What we do is take measuring tapes with us and measure the doors and imagine how people in wheelchairs would go in and out. Importantly having a wheelchair curler with you to do this is useful, so we can better understand, and meet, their needs,” said Snitil.

Once at the event itself, he becomes the port of call for any logistical issues. For example, the curlers asked for an amendment to the ramps to make it quicker to get off the ice after a match which he approved. The reality is, even when everything is organised well, changes are still made at events with Snitil consulting with the players regularly through Patrick McDonald, a member of the players’ commission.

“His [McDonald’s] role here is to go around and talk to players and gather input from teams and for me it’s always important to keep communicating with him and get the feedback from him.”

Playing at an elite level for 15 years for his nation, Czech Republic, Snitil finds it easy to relate to the curlers.

“I always try to look from the players’ perspective and try to help to accommodate the coaches and players as well as possible. For me right now it’s still a learning process to see things from the wheelchair. You need to see things from different heights.”

There are also different challenges for him in his role depending on the competition that he is organising. While he prioritises accessibility at wheelchair events, at the men and women’s championships, television crew accommodation is an important factor to think about.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a lot more work, I’d say it’s different,” he said, “Every competition has different challenges. There are televised events and they are very complicated because TV gets involved and usually there are a lot of spectators so combined it makes everything more complicated.”

Yet, even the ice is made differently at wheelchair events. John Heron, Chief Ice Technician at the event has an important job to assist the curlers.

“The big difference for us is getting the ice right for the wheelchairs,” said Heron, “Because they’re not sweeping, it can get a bit slow for them.

John Heron © WCF / Alina Pavlyuchik

“The key thing for us is to make it as fast as we can so that it’s more enjoyable for these guys as well. Speed of the ice is key between wheelchair and able-bodied curling.

“We pebble the ice differently as well as cutting the ice. It’s also at different temperatures. We make it a bit warmer here because it helps the stone glide along the ice rather than it being harder. We keep the pebble hard for longer for able-bodied curlers.”

As well as the wheelchairs requiring a cleaning process, they also require more help from the on-ice assistants who clean up the sheet. These volunteers have more work on their hands as assistants in wheelchair curling than able-bodied.

Heron continued, “Here, every stone has to be cleaned because those in the wheelchairs can’t pick them up themselves. The volunteers give them a clean and put them out in front of them and get everything ready for them as well.”

Before the competition starts, there are already coaches preparing their athletes for one of the biggest moments in their sporting career.

“I don’t think people appreciate the level that these guys play at,” said Sheila Swan, Head Coach of British Wheelchair Curling.

Swan, who was part of the Scottish women’s team that won the World Women’s Curling Championship in 2002, was also coach of the Scottish junior team before beginning her work with the national wheelchair team over a decade ago. With such experience she has adapted from her days of working with able-bodied athletes.

Scotland team © WCF / Alina Pavlyuchik

“You have to consider the level of ability or disability a bit more,” she said, “You have to be appreciative of the disability that some of the athletes may have whether that’s getting ready to go out or the travel.

“It’s not as simple as flying and being there an hour and a half before. You’re always first on and last off and you have to be there earlier.

“You have to find out more about what they do and what their daily programme looks like. Everything takes a little bit longer so you have to be wary about how you schedule things and how you go about doing it.” 

As an able-bodied athlete, Swan finds herself noticing accessibility issues on a daily basis, whether it be in a restaurant or in a building due to her experience with this team.

“You find yourself looking at things like how steep ramps are or how high the hand dryers or how wide the door frames are.”

However, despite all the differences between the disciplines, Swan likes to make her athletes as independent as possible. 

“It’s interesting because people generally want to help. We will come off the plane and we’ll be coming up the slope and the assistant will ask if they want help. The athletes will often say no, but they’ll still get helped up the ramp.

“For me, that is quite frustrating. People do just want to help but they forget to listen to the answer. You should always ask, but you should always listen as well.”

And, that is the key point about wheelchair curling. It may be different, the athletes may need accessibility and they may face more difficulties due to their disability, but they play the same game as any other curler does.

To engage with the World Curling Federation on social media during the World Wheelchair Curling Championship 2020 follow it on Twitter, Instagram (@WorldCurling) and Facebook (@WorldCurlingFederation) and use the hashtags when posting: #WWhCC2020 #curling

Wetzikon, Switzerland

11 March 2020