Thursday, March 13, 2014

Wheelchair Curling

For a blog post I wrote for trianglecurling.com a while back, I said that curling wouldn't be nearly as exciting to watch or as television-friendly without sweeping. If there's no sweeping, there's no yelling either, making it pretty quiet. Atheticism wouldn't be as important, either. We'd all just be sitting there watching the rocks slide down the ice. Maybe then, it really would be "shuffleboard on ice". (That's a metaphor I really don't care for, by the way.)

Well, if you want to know what curling would be like without sweeping...watch wheelchair curling! I had never seen a game before, but NBCSN broadcast a game earlier this week from the Paralympics. And since the volume of curling on television still isn't all that high, I'll record and watch any televised curling match, including wheelchair curling. (Speaking of which, Universal Sports Network - DirecTV 625 - is airing some games from next week's Women's World Championships. My DVR is set!)

The basics of wheelchair curling:
- Participants in Paralympic wheelchair curling must use a wheelchair for mobility on a full-time, or nearly full-time, basis. So, someone like me can't go out and say, "I'm going to get into wheelchair curling and try to make the Paralympics." Only actual disabled people may apply.
- Curlers release stones while sitting down, using a stick.
- There is no sweeping, at all.
- You have to have at least one woman and one man on your team, but not necessarily equal numbers of each. Team USA has three men and one woman, for instance.
- Paralympic games are 8 ends, not 10.

If you watched Olympic curling, you often saw shot percentages in the 70 to 90% range, sometimes even higher than 90%. In the Paralympics? Well, first off, releasing a stone from a sitting position is harder. (Well, the act of releasing it might be easier, but releasing it accurately is certainly harder.) But the fact that there's no sweeping, either - which can make a HUGE difference; it's part of what makes the best regular curling teams so very good at precise shotmaking - decreases the shot percentages dramatically. The average in wheelchair curling might be around 50% or so, as opposed to 80% or higher.

Sometimes when I watch Olympic curling, I think, "I can't possibly learn any meaningful strategy from watching this. These guys are way better than I'll ever be." Applying world champion Niklas Edin's strategy in one of my own games - relying on complicated runback takeouts and whatnot - would probably be rather ineffective. (Fun, sure, but ineffective.) With wheelchair curling, however, due to the added level of difficulty, the level of shotmaking is much closer to what I might hope to see myself with regular curling.

When there's more of a question as to whether the other team will make their shots, the strategy is different. For example, challenging your opponent to make that draw for one can pay off much more in wheelchair curling, because that shot isn't as much of a slam dunk as it would be for most Olympic curlers. Also, in the game that I watched, Team USA had a chance to blank the first end, but instead drew for the single point on purpose. When the shot percentages go down, scoring without hammer is easier, and so there isn't as much of a benefit to blanking an end. Take your points when you can get them! That's much more like our club games.

So, in summary, wheelchair curling might actually be more beneficial for me from the standpoint of learning curling strategy. Is it more interesting in general, though? Probably not. I have to admit, the sweeping and the yelling and screaming adds quite a bit to the entertainment value, and athleticism, of curling. But wheelchair curling is something different, almost like a peek at what the curling world would be like without sweeping. (By the way, the wheelchair curlers do yell at the rocks sometimes, kind of like golfers yell at their golf balls after they hit them.)

The Paralympic gold medal game is being broadcast this Saturday at 6:30 PM on NBCSN. Check it out!

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