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Winter Paralympics: Wheel chance on ice

OUT on the sheets at Hamilton Ice Rink, the noise level is building to a crescendo.

From left to right, Gregor Ewan, Angie Malone, skip Aileen Neilson and Bob McPherson are heading to Sochi hoping to return to Scotland with a medal                                        Photograph: Christian Cooksey
From left to right, Gregor Ewan, Angie Malone, skip Aileen Neilson and Bob McPherson are heading to Sochi hoping to return to Scotland with a medal Photograph: Christian Cooksey

They call this "the roaring game" and as a pair of silver-haired ladies in matching woolly jerseys scuttle across the ice to cries of "hurry haaaarrrrd", curling is certainly living up to its nickname.

Nearby, another group is practising. Resplendent in their new navy tracksuits, the Team GB wheelchair curling squad are in the final hours of a training camp. A five-strong team will depart for Sochi tomorrow to compete in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

That was due to comprise skip Aileen Neilson, Tom Killin, Bob McPherson, Gregor Ewan and alternate Angie Malone, but on Friday Killin was forced to withdraw due to illness, and replaced by Jim Gault.

As with the rinks of Eve Muirhead and David Murdoch, which won bronze and silver respectively at the 2014 Winter Olympics, the team is made up entirely of Scots. The camaraderie is obvious as they shout instructions to one another with banter flying as the loud thunk of granite stones collide.

"The only difference between able-bodied and wheelchair curling is that we do need to be more accurate because we don't have sweepers who can either make the stone go a little further or influence the swing it has," says Neilson.

Casting an eye over proceedings is GB wheelchair curling head coach Tony Zummack, a no-nonsense Can- adian who is credited with revolution- ising training programmes since he was appointed by sportscotland institute of sport in 2010 after the Paralympic Games in Vancouver.

GB finished sixth in that Games, four years after winning silver in Turin. But Neilson and her rink, who are training full-time thanks to support from British Curling, The Royal Caledonian Curling Club, UK Sport, sportscotland institute of sport and the National Lottery, are confident about their chances of success in Sochi following a strong season which has seen them collect three golds and three silvers in their last six major tournaments.

Neilson, 42, is the first woman to skip in either a world championships or Paralympics, but that is of little importance to the primary school teacher from Strathaven, Lanarkshire.

"I'm obviously very proud to be the skip," she says. "The fact that I'm female? Wheelchair curling is mixed gender. There are four players on the ice and every stone that is played is crucial. It just so happens that the female is throwing the last two stones in our team, but the first two stones are just as important."

Neilson, who had a tumour removed from her spine as a toddler, started to use a wheelchair perm- anently in 2005. After years of relying on elbow crutches, she describes it as giving her a "new lease of life", allowing her to make her Paralympic debut in Vancouver in 2010 and represent Scotland in six world championships, leading the team to silver in 2011.

Killin, a legend in the sport, was due to head to his fifth Paralympics, having competed at two summer Games and winning double team silver for fencing at Arnhem in 1980 and two bronzes four years later in Stoke Mandeville.

His replacement, Gault, is an experienced player in his own right, having taken up wheelchair curling six years ago and represented Team Scotland at the World Championships in 2012. The 59-year-old from Lossiemouth, Morayshire, has been part of the GB squad for four years, but this will be his first Paralympics.

"I've trained and competed alongside Tom as a team-mate for several years so I know how hard we all trained and how much he wanted to represent ParalympicsGB once more, so of course I am really upset for Tom," he says. "At the same time, I have just been given an amazing opportunity to represent my country on the biggest stage in disability sport and of course I am looking forward to it. I just want do my very best for the team and put in some great perform- ances on the ice."

IT is a viewpoint echoed by Zummack. "We are devastated for Tom," the coach says. "He has trained very hard over the last four years to prepare for the Paralympic Games and he is incredibly disappointed that he is not in a position to compete. However, we have to make the best decision for Tom's health and for the team as a whole and this unfortunately means that Tom will not join us in Sochi.

"Jim is a fantastic player and he has been part of the GB Wheelchair Curling squad for several years now, so he knows the team, our tactics and our plans inside out. He only narrowly missed out on selection for the team, so I have every confidence that he will slot in smoothly and will be a great asset to our team performances in Sochi."

Two other members of the team, Ewan and McPherson, are also gearing up for their first Games. Both competed as part of Team Scotland at the 2013 World Championships.

Ewan, 42, from Elgin, Morayshire, took up curling in 2007 after being introduced to the sport by a friend. "Within five minutes I was hooked," he says. "You have a 12ft house - a bullseye - and a 12in stone, but trying to get that stone to land on that house? I must have thrown it about 50 times and it was so frustrating."

Having purchased a copy of Curling For Dummies to teach himself the basics, Ewan was soon back on the ice. "It's like chess with move, counter move and strategy," he says. "The more I played, the more I enjoyed it. I got asked to play for Scotland a year-and-a-half later."

A former bricklayer, he has been in a wheelchair for eight years after a degenerative back condition led to his spine collapsing. "The first couple of years I beat myself up about being in the chair," says Ewan. "Now I don't even think about it. I never imagined that I'd be going to the Paralympics."

McPherson considers himself a rel- ative newbie having only joined the GB ranks two years ago. The 45-year-old from Bellshill, Lanarkshire, who was born with spina bifida, first began curling at club level in 2007.

"When we all got our GB playing kit with our names on it - it felt amazing," he says. "The way I see it, it's like a football player going to the World Cup. I feel so proud."

Malone, a Paralympic silver medallist from Turin in 2006, travels to Sochi as alternate. The 48-year-old from Girvan, Ayrshire is a two-time world champion and competed at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. She said the team was inspired by the success of Muirhead and Murdoch's rinks. "Watching the guys perform out there in Sochi has really charged us up," she says. "The ice looks great and we can't wait to get out there."

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