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Fort Wayne Curling hosts National Wheelchair Mixed Doubles Championship

Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Matt Thums brackets his opponents chair to stabilize her throw during National Wheelchair Mixed Doubles championship Sunday. In wheelchair curling, competitors steady each others' wheelchair against the backwards thrust of their throw.

The Fort Wayne Curling Club hosted the first USA Curling National Championship of 2024 over the weekend, with players coming to compete in the Wheelchair Mixed Doubles National Championship.

Competitors came together this past week to vie for the chance to represent the U.S. at the World Wheelchair Mixed Doubles Championship in the spring.

On Sunday morning, two teams came head-to-head in the final game of the championship. Over two hours, both teams kept the score tight until the very end, with one team prevailing by one point.

Wheelchair Curling differs from able-bodied Curling in a few ways, but the most noticeable is that there is no sweeping, which means players have to be much more precise in their throws.

In able bodied Curling, teams sweep the ice in front of the stone as it’s thrown to help push it further. Without that mechanism, Wheelchair Curlers have to be especially aware of the changes in the ice that will affect how their stone glides towards the house, or the circles painted on the opposite side of the ice.

Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Oyuna Uranchimeg and Matt Thums contemplate their next throw as they consider the stones already in the house during the final game of the Wheelchair Curling Mixed Doubles National Championship on Sunday, January 7, 2023.

The team of Matt Thums and Oyuna Uranchimeg won with a score of 7-6.

During the game, players throw their stones across the ice towards their partner, with their opponent on the same side. Another way wheelchair curling differs from able-bodied curling is the use of a delivery stick to take their shots. A long pole loops around the handle of the stone and offers players more leverage over their throw.

When throwing, a player’s opponent braces themselves behind the other player, holding the right wheel of their chair to brace against any backwards moment from their throw. While there are volunteers who can also stand behind players, bracing the left wheel with their foot while holding the right one, most players elect to have their opponents brace them for sturdiness.

Following the win, Thums said he was feeling a mix of emotions, but mostly relief.

“I think we played out with the best game we played all week," he said. "So, we made our shots when we needed to, so, relief. And joy, but a lot of relief.”

Thums and Uranchimeg struggled to get through Saturday's semifinals, down 5-0 in the middle of the game.

Following the fourth end, players are given a five minute break. After their break, Thums and Uranchimeg came back and took the game.

Uranchimeg said they decided to switch their line up, since the routine they were on wasn’t working for them.

“Sometimes it’s good to kind of switch things up and then to kind of get a little different routine," she said. "I think that kinda turned the tide around for us and then we were able to come on top. I mean, it was intense, I gotta tell, but it was a great game.”

With their gold medals, Thums and Uranchimeg will go on to the World Championships in South Korea in March. Until then, every spare minute will be spent training.

“We’re both also on the four person team, so we’ll be curling for a week before, for the mixed doubles," Thums said. "So, it’ll be nonstop curling and work and maybe get a little sleep in there.”

Ella Abbott
/
WBOI News
Matt Thums and Oyuna Uranchimeg display their gold medals on Sunday, January 7, 2023. Behind them, the teams that won bronze (left) and silver (middle). Thums and Uranchimeg will go on to represent the USA in the World Championship in March.

Both have jobs outside of curling, which means finding extra time in their days to put towards the sport.

“Balancing your work with all the obligations for training and travel, it’s a little challenging but we're making it work," Uranichimeg said.

Neither of them started the sport expecting to end up here.

“I just went to a ‘learn to curl’ in my town 12 years ago and threw some stones and got hooked," Thums said. "It’s a great sport to do in the winter time. Here we are today.”

Uranichmeg was invited to learn by a friend who curled recreationally in 2016. She says she came to see the national team at the time, which included Thums, and threw her first stone and fell for the sport.

“I wasn’t really, like, expecting anything, but then, it was a pleasant surprise obviously," she said. "I’ve been through three World Championships and one Paralympics, so it’s been quite a journey and I still enjoy it.”

Wheelchair curling was added to the Paralympic Games in 2006. Wheelchair curling mixed doubles was added this past July and will make its debut at the 2026 Paralympic Games in Italy.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.