Updated: Thursday, 13 March 2014 21:34 | By Agence France-Presse

Wheelchair curlers hurl stones in chess on ice

Aileen Neilson sits perfectly straight, staring ahead, readjusts her position in the wheelchair, takes a deep breath and pushes the 20 kilogramme curling stone across the ice. 


Wheelchair curlers hurl stones in chess on ice

Russia's Oxana Slesarenko (2nd R) pushes the stone during the match between USA and Russia in Wheelchair Curling at XI Paralympic Olympic games in the Ice Cube Curling Centre stadium near Sochi on March 10, 2014 - by Kirill Kudryavtsev

Neilson, the only female wheelchair curling skip, or captain, at the Sochi Winter Paralympic Games, is trying with her all-Scottish team to unseat Canada, the double reigning champions.

"You have to be really patient, it's not over until the last stone is thrown," she said after Britain finally overtook the US in a tense game. 

Like Aileen's team, the rocks in Sochi are also from Scotland, chiseled into the right shape from granite mined at Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited island.

But while the rocks may be the same, there are many differences between curling and wheelchair curling. You won't see the frantic sweeping of the ice at the Paralympics, but you will see women and men playing on the same team. 

Sometimes that leads to romance -- Finnish competitors Markku Karjalainen and Sari Karjalainen met in 2008 playing wheelchair curling and are now both in Sochi on the national team. 

"I think it works well," Eileen said of the mixed gender aspect of the game. "I would like for more females to get involved." 

Eileen's team is ranked third before the last so-called round robin session -- a dozen games when all teams play one another to determine the best four to move to the semifinals. 

Canada, the Vancouver Paralympic champions, and Russia, ranked second in their Paralympic debut, have already secured places in the semi-finals to be held Saturday.

-Chess on ice-

With its slow pace and sessions that can take longer than three hours, curling is often compared to chess, and many consider the wheelchair version even more difficult, since the launch of the stone has to be even more precise, with no sweeping to guide it into place. 

Moreover, wheelchair players sit lower, so it's harder for them to tell the distance between the stones already at the end of the curling sheet. 

"Strategy wise, it's like chess," said US skip Patrick McDonald. "To get to the point where you see five steps ahead -- that takes a long, long time." 

The sport is also one that represents the biggest age range at the Paralympics, from China's 23-year-old Guangqin Xu to Canada's 63-year-old skip Jim Armstrong. 

"In today's world, with football and basketball, it's probably too slow of a sport for the younger generation, but if they took the time to play it, it would catch their attention," said McDonald. 

He added that despite what it may look like, throwing stones is physically draining and demands going to the gym to build up cardio endurance, not just working on strategy. 

"I played here after not throwing stones for a week, and I am more sore now than I was before I got here," he said. "It does take physical attributes to do it, you need to stay in shape."

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