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Ready, willing and able quintet curling for gold Scottish rink are GB's strongest medal contenders at Paralympics, says Doug Gillon

BRITAIN'S curling teams may have returned empty-handed from the Winter Olympics, but the hottest favourites for gold in Italy have yet to cast a single stone.

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Prospects of the Great Britain Paralympic rink in Turin have remained shrouded in anonymity, such was the hype attendant on David Murdoch and Rhona Martin. This despite the fact that the all-Scottish Paralympians won the world title in 2004 and 2005. That puts them some way ahead of the Olympic men's and women's squads who arrived in Pinerolo modestly ranked: third and sixth respectively.

The shameful disregard for these athletes reflects the status of the disabled in wider society: overlooked and marginalised despite their achievements.

How many Winter Olympians, for example, had represented their country in several sports? None, we can tell you. Yet Edinburgh's Tom Killin from the curling quintet is competing internationally for the third time at this level . . . in his fourth sport.

So we are delighted to put prospects in perspective. From March 10-19, when some 600 competitors from 40 countries contest the Paralympics, Scottish curlers will be Britain's strongest medal contenders.

Their preparations have been the same as those of the Olympic squads. Skip Frank Duffy, plus Killin, Michael McCreadie, Ken Dickson and Angela Malone are backed by the lottery and Scottish Institute of Sport. They have had exactly the same analytical, technical and psychological support as their able-bodied colleagues. Their coach, Tom Pendreigh, is also personal coach of Lockerbie's Turin Olympic skip, Murdoch, and the Inverness man helped steer that rink to world silver and European bronze last year. The notable difference is that the Paralympians are a mixed rink.

Duffy, the only one among the five who had curled before they acquired their disability, explains: "In Paralympic curling, which is being contested for the first time, there's not an event for each sex, so Angela is guaranteed to play every match. You must have one person of both sexes on the ice at all times."

Killin, from Abbeyhill in Edinburgh, has a range of durability and ability which almost certainly makes him unique. He was in the world title-winning curling squad last year, and is the only one of the five not to have two world golds to his name. However, he already owns two Paralympic silver medals, won as a member of the fencing team in Holland in 1980, plus two fencing medals from the 1970 Commonwealth Games which were held just down the road from his home in the capital.

Killin also represented Scotland and Britain in disability table tennis and basketball for 12 years, and won world silver in the singles at the former. At 55, he still holds his own, playing able-bodied table tennis in league division two. "I'm the only wheelchair user playing the game at this level in Scotland, " he says.

"My first Paralympic appearance was at Arnhem, in 1980, " he recalls. "I competed in both foil and sabre. The Games were held in Holland because we could not go to Moscow."

That had nothing to do with bowing to Margaret Thatcher, who urged a boycott as a protest against the invasion of Afghanistan. It was because the Soviets claimed there were no disabled people at all in their country, and refused to stage the event. Such an attitude today would assuredly disqualify any candidate from hosting the Olympics. In that respect, disability sport has moved forward, yet the Commonwealth Games merely includes the odd token event.

When the Paralympics were next held, at Stoke Mandeville in England four years later, Killin was back, in both team fencing events, "but we didn't make the medals that time."

Killin had never curled at all before he was injured in a car accident when he was 17. He spent 37 years working with a drinks company but retired last year. "I'm now curling just about full time." He is president of the Braehead wheelchair club, and like all the squad, joined the SIS last year.

His skip, Duffy tries to play down the favourite label, "but with the squad having won the last two world titles, we probably can't avoid being ranked No.1, " says the Fifer. "We know our opposition very well, having played them a few times, and we have done our homework."

He competed in able-bodied curling as a young man. "I started when I was about 12, growing up in Falkland, and from about 18 I was playing at a fairly high level. However, when I was injured in a freak accident 11 years ago, I thought my curling days were over.

"I only fell about 10 or 12 feet. I'd had much worse falls, working as a tree surgeon. It took me about three years to adjust and realise that there was more out there for me."

He met inspirational Dumbartonshire yachtswoman Sylvia Sandeman and was soon sailing Challengers. He won a Scottish championship silver medal, and began coaching, including working with blind sailors. "I worked at Lochore Meadows, as a receptionist and coach, until last summer. I retired in June and since then I've been curling more or less full-time. Yet after the accident I'd hardly given curling a thought until I was asked in 2000. I'm the only one of the five of us who had played before losing the use of their legs."

Malone, who lives near Girvan, had never thrown a curling stone when Martin's rink won the Olympic title in Salt Lake City four years ago. "I started just three years ago, " she said, "but as soon as I got on the ice, I was totally hooked."

As a teenage ice-skater she had her own sporting ambitions. "Torvill and Dean were my heroes, " she said. "Going to the Olympics was an absolute dream . . . yet here I am."

A 40-year-old with 20 and 16year-old daughters, who are understandably very proud of their mum, she was also injured in a vehicular accident. "I run my own marketing consultancy from home, " she says. "It means I can make my own hours and work at my own pace. It also means I'm able to curl five times a week."

Dickson, from Berwick, and McCreadie, from Lochwinnoch, complete the historic rink. Martin may have been the first woman to skip a Scottish rink to Olympic gold, but there is scope for a famous five to claim their own destiny.

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