With the Winter Olympics in Sochi well in the rearview mirror, there are still many athletes that dream of one day testing their skill on the world’s biggest sporting stage. In Israel, this is even more relevant for Paralympic athletes.
Generally, the Winter Paralympic Games are held almost two weeks after the Winter Olympic Games in the same host city, in many of the same venues, and in many of the same sports. For 2018, the host city is Pyeongchang, South Korea, and for a group of Israeli wheelchair curlers that dream might just become a reality.
Curling is certainly not an indigenous sport to Israel or really anywhere in the Middle East. It is Scottish by origin and played by over 1.2 million people in Canada. Canadian dominance in curling is well documented historically and was again evident in 2014 when the Canadian men, women, and wheelchair curlers all took home gold medals in Sochi.
The group of Israeli wheelchair curlers training for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics traveled to Bratislava recently for three days of practice and a friendly with the Slovakian National Team, which placed sixth at Sochi Paralympic Games.
The 2014 games in Sochi were only wheelchair curling’s third time as a Winter Paralympic sport including the 2006 Turin and 2010 Vancouver Games. In each of those three Games, Canada won Paralympic gold in wheelchair curling.
Leave it up to five determined Israeli wheelchair athletes to try to change that trend and compete for a spot to represent Israel in its first ever Winter Paralympic sport and first ever winter team sport.
Israelis have competed with success at Summer Paralympic Games with 124 gold medals since 1960.
Among the wheelchair curlers who trained in Bratislava was David Drai, who competed in basketball at the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing.
Drai continues to coach basketball at Beit HaLochem in Jerusalem and was recently asked how he got involved in what Canadians refer to as the “roaring game” (because of the noise the 20 kilogram granite rock makes as it travels down the ice).
“This is a thinking sport and much like chess it involves a lot of patience and precision,” noted Drai. “We want to show the world that Israelis can excel at this too. For me, it’s a sport without physical contact unlike basketball and it allows you to compete for many years and at a more advanced age, as long as you can stand the cold.”
Along with Drai, the four other wheelchair athletes were given instruction by the Slovakian National Team coach and they also participated in a friendly match against the Slovakian Wheelchair Curling National Team.
The Israeli wheelchair curlers will continue to train as they look to earn a spot in the 2015 World Championships in Lohja, Finland, in February. To qualify for that event, they must place first or second in a European qualifier held in Lillehammer, Norway, at the beginning of November.
Of the 53 member nations in the World Curling Federation, only 20 or so field wheelchair curling teams.
“With 12 spots in the Paralympics these are pretty good odds”, stated Israel Curling Federation General Secretary, Sharon Cohen. “We know what we need to do to qualify out of Europe and get through to the World Championships and with a good showing at Worlds we can get a birth in the Paralympics.
“Without a facility here in Israel, it means we must train abroad and that’s hard on us but we are determined.”
Wheelchair curling is a co-ed sport consisting of four players, of which at least one must always be female.
Sharon explained that “the fact that we receive very little to no funding from the Israel Olympic Committee, the Israeli government, and the Ministry of Sports limits us, so we continue to try to raise funds privately for the wheelchair curling team and we hope to one day build a dedicated curling facility here in Israel.”
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