Wheelchair curlers always keep their cool

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Wheelchair curlers always keep their cool


From left: Seo Soon-seok, Jung Seung-won and Bang Min-ja train at Icheon Training Centre in Gyeonggi on Monday. [JANG JIN-YOUNG]

Korea’s legions of recent curling converts won’t need to wait long to get their next dose of the newly-popular sport. The Gangneung Curling Centre will once again echo with the sound of ricocheting stones as wheelchair curling starts on Saturday at the PyeongChang Paralympic Games.

But this time there won’t be shouts of “Yeong-mi” echoing around the arena. In fact, there won’t be any shouts at all.

“In wheelchair curling, there is no need to raise our voices during the game,” said Seo Soon-seok, skip, or captain, of the Korean wheelchair curling team. Wheelchair curlers do not use brooms, so the frantic sweeping and shouting that is typical of Olympic curling is cut out of the game. Instead, it all comes down to the shooter.

“But that also means that it’s harder to recover from a mistake,” Seo explained. “You need to make accurate shots.”

Instead of brooms, wheelchair curlers use delivery sticks to slide the stones. A teammate steadies the athlete’s wheelchair while they slide the stone to help them stay still and improve accuracy.

While in the Olympics there are three different curling contests - women’s, men’s and mixed doubles - in wheelchair curling there is just one, mixed team. Each team is required to have at least one player from each gender. The Korean team consists of four male curlers - Seo, Cha Jae-goan, Jung Seung-won and Lee Dong-ha - and the team’s lead, or second-in-command, female curler Bang Min-ja.

Unlike Korea’s silver-medal winning women’s curling juggernauts Team Kim, the wheelchair curling squad don’t all share the same surname.

“All five of us have different surnames,” said Seo. “I hope [the fans] call us the Oseong Avengers.” The first syllable oh is Korean for five, while seong means both surname and star. The Oseong Avengers are a five-star team with five different surnames.

The members of the Korean wheelchair curling team are portrayed as “heroes,” who overcame adversity. Rather than being born with an impairment, all five members were victims of tragic accidents.

Seo was the victim of a hit-and-run car accident which paralyzed his lower limbs. Though he studied computer programming, he wasn’t able to get a job as many companies refused to hire him due to his impairment. While he was struggling to get a job, Seo was unexpectedly given the opportunity to play wheelchair curling at age 40. He had been athletic since he was young and used to be a baseball player in middle school. With less than four years of wheelchair curling experience, Seo competed at the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games, finishing ninth.

“This time, I want to play well in front of my family,” Seo said.

Bang, the only female curler on the Korean team, was also paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident 25 years ago. It was so traumatic to Bang that she didn’t leave her house for 10 years after the accident. Following a suggestion from her sister, Bang visited a rehabilitation center where she took handicraft classes and started playing bowls.

She later took up curling and set her heart on competing at the Paralympics.

“If I didn’t play curling, I probably still wouldn’t have come out of my room,” Bang said. “I want to present a medal to my mom and my sister, who took care of me all this time.”

The Korean wheelchair curling team won a silver medal at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games. Considering the poor training facility and support provided to the team in preparation for the 2010 Paralympics, it was a close to miracle that the team took home a medal at all.

In those days, the team used to have to wait for the curling team to finish on the ice before they could use it, or occasionally were even forced to freeze a swimming pool in the Paralympic swimming training center in Icheon, Gyeonggi.

But things have changed in the last eight years and Korea’s wheelchair curling team is now a force to be reckoned with on the international stage, competing with the top teams around the world during their offseason training. Last year they officially moved into their own dedicated training facility equipped with video analysis systems to help them improve their game.

Unlike previous years, the selection process for the PyeongChang team was also more rigorous, with a shortlist of eight players selected before being cut down to the final five, the Oseong Avengers.

The team lived up to expectations, finishing second at the Kisakallio Cup 2018 in January and winning the British Open last month.

“Our first goal is to advance to the semifinals,” said Baek Jong-chul, head coach of the wheelchair curling team. “We believe that we can get to the semifinals if we win seven of the 11 games. From their recent victories at international competitions, the players have gained confidence. I think we can definitely expect a medal.”

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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