WHILE the Roar of the Rings rumbled into its final days, five curlers were formally revealed in Canadian colours, looking to throw to the podium in Sochi.
They will not wield brooms. Instead, this group will roll into the 2014 Paralympics as the national wheelchair curling squad, hunting for Canada's third straight gold since the sport was added to the Paralympics in 2006. This time, they have a Manitoban on board.
"We expect to be top three in the world," said Paralympic chef de mission Ozzie Sawicki, at an MTS Centre press conference on Friday. "We believe in the athletes. We believe the opportunity is there."
The experience is there as well, as three of the five team members have been to the Paralympics before. Lead Sonja Gaudet, from B.C., was part of the original Torino crew, and threw again in Vancouver in 2010. Second Ina Forrest has a gold medal from Vancouver as well, and former able-bodied Brier curler Jim Armstrong is back in the skip's seat after leading the team to gold in 2010 and a world championship gold earlier this year.
Only alternate Mark Ideson, from Ontario, and third Dennis Thiessen from Sanford, Man., are making their first trip to the Paralympics. After curling to gold with the team at the World Wheelchair Curling Championships in Sochi earlier this year, Thiessen feels ready to make a return trip to Russia.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "I kind of have a sense of what to expect. This is the biggest thing in my life to happen."
So a Paralympic dream come true then for Thiessen, 52, who lost his left leg in a farming accident when he was 17. Today, he runs a home business with wife Helene, but wheelchair curling has now opened up the world since he got into the sport in 2005. After winning the 2011 nationals with Team Manitoba, he was recruited to the Canadian team. "Sport has just done so many things for me," he said. "It's been so inspiring. It makes me want to do more things."
Now, people ring Thiessen up, interested in trying wheelchair curling. Some have sustained a recent injury, while others have been living with limited mobility for decades.
"The more exposure that we have, they see it and think, 'I can do that,'" he said.
One wrinkle in the journey: Access. With many aging curling barns, there are only a handful of clubs in Winnipeg where Thiessen can even get his wheelchair on the ice. The Assiniboine Curling Club is one, and that has been his home.
"They've made it very accessible for wheelchair curlers," Thiessen said. "They installed an elevator, they've offered all the ice I want to practise on, they've been so supportive. They've been great."
Perhaps interlocking with the infrastructure question, the competitive wheelchair curling community in Canada is still a cosy one. Canadian Curling Association CEO Greg Stremlaw said his organization believes numbers are growing.
"Participation at the grassroots level is there," he said. "Winning Paralympic golds helps put the spotlight on the sport, so that's been a wonderful activation for curling to say, 'Hey, you think you can't do curling? Yeah, you can.' "