Paralympian Meghan Lino navigated her wheelchair on the ice inside a huge, chilly room on Cape Cod.
“Go ahead and give it a shove," she said to a Korean War veteran, who was part of a group on the ice today to learn how to curl. He grasped a pole and pushed a heavy, round stone down the ice.
“So now that you have your first one, let's try to get this one a little further than that one,” Lino said encouragingly.
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 members slipping along, sweeping in front of the stone, so all of the aiming is done by the thrower.
“This game is not a game of strength," Lino said. "It's a game of finesse.”
Lino was born with spina bifida, and has been in a wheelchair her whole life. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital growing up,” she said. She said 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 said she’s seen over time that curling has changed who she is.
“Everybody on the team says I've really come out of my shell since I've started curling," she said. "I've grown up so much with this sport — maturity level and being more independent with everything in my daily life. Never. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I'd be doing what I'm doing now.”
Lino’s teammate Steve Emt positioned a stone on the ice in front of another disabled veteran, Debra Freed, who was trying curling for the first time. She pushed her pole, and the stone took off. “Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on! Come on!" she called to her stone, encouraging it to hit the round target at the other end of the ice, which in curling is called the "house."
It slid to a rest inside the house, and Emt gave her a high-five.
Emt was an athlete and a veteran at age 25, when he got in a bad car accident. “I was a drunk driver," he said. "Tried to drive home, didn't make it. Fortunately I'm alive.”
But that mistake changed his life. “You know, after something stupid, a bad decision on my part, I wake up, a couple of days a coma, wake up and was told I'd never walk again,” he said.
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.
“And I'm like A, what the heck is curling," Emt said. "And B, I heard Olympics — where do I sign up to, as an athlete? Let's do it. I went home, Googled a sport, came back, tried it and fell in love with it right away.”
Like Lino, Emt said curling has changed a lot more than just how he spends his free time. It’s changed who he is. He said 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.
“And I get here and it just — it's this sport has taught me to chill out," he said. "You know, calm down, relax, and that is carried over to my personal life.”
He said 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. But he said he got some great advice from a former Olympian.
“You know, when you’re out there on the ice, look around. You’re representing the United States, you’re in Korea. You’re competing in front of the world. Enjoy it. You’re an Olympian. Take it all in,” Emt said he was told.
And as he’s out there curling this week, that’s exactly what he plans to do.