Canada’s wheelchair curling team is gunning for a Paralympic three-peat in Sochi.
Owner of the only two Paralympic gold medals in the sport, Canada is looking to defend its title again when the tournament starts with matches against Great Britain and Russia on Saturday.
The Canadian rink, consisting of skip Jim Armstrong, Sonja Gaudet, Dennis Thiessen, Ina Forrest and alternate Mark Ideson, also enters the event as the defending world champions, having defeated Sweden for the title in 2013 at the same venue. Canada plays Sweden on Sunday in a possible preview of the gold medal game.
"Certainly for us, on the face of it, with the experience we had last year [at the worlds], Sweden owned us," Armstrong said. "They took us two out of three here. So from our standpoint, Sweden would be our nemesis. We're looking to have some very powerful games out of them."
Sochi will be the second Paralympic Games for Swedish skip Jalle Jungnell and Glenn Ikonen, while Patrick Kallin will be returning for his second. Kristina Ulander and Zandra Reppe will both make their Paralympic debuts in Sochi.
Since the sport debuted at the Turin Paralympics in 2006, Canada has won both gold medals in the event. Canada defeated Great Britain for gold in Turin and beat South Korea at the Vancouver Paralympics in 2010.
Gaudet has a chance for her third Paralympic gold medal; she is the only curler who was part of both of the 2006 and 2010 Canadian rinks.
"We wheeled into the venue [Friday] morning and went, 'OK, we were here a year ago, but it doesn't seem that long ago,'" Gaudet said. "So it definitely has a comfortable feeling."
Other possible medal contenders in Sochi include China, Russia and South Korea. The Chinese have taken bronze in the last two world championships (2012, 2013). Russia, playing in front of the home crowd, won the world title in 2012.
South Korea won silver at the 2012 worlds and again at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics, the country’s only medal from those Games.
The United States, Finland, Slovakia, and Norway round out the 10-team field, which will consist of a round-robin portion with the top four rinks advancing to the semifinals. Ties for fourth place will be broken by a one-game playoff.
The semifinals, bronze medal game and gold medal game will all be played on March 15.
First introduced in 2000, wheelchair curling became an official Paralympic sport in 2006. The sport is played with the same rocks, same rink dimensions, and same scoring rules as regular curling.
Rocks are thrown by the player from a stationary wheelchair, either by hand or pushed by a delivery stick, and there is no sweeping. It’s a mixed gender sport and teams must include at least one player from each gender.
"Every year there's another year of experience [for wheelchair curlers], another layer," Armstrong said. "With that comes a better understanding of making the transition in strategy, of able-bodied versus wheelchair. We don't have sweeping. That changes the way we would approach the game. I think virtually all the countries are enjoying quite an improvement. In the very few years I've been around, I've certainly seen a huge difference."