It's Saturday evening, and a small group of people gathers on a rink inside Ice Station Valencia. The goal is to learn curling, a winter game where players push a hefty stone across the freeze beneath them. The students are in wheelchairs and, as they let their wheels acclimate to the cold, Patrick McDonald gives them the lowdown. Dressed in USA red with pants covered in swirls of Olympic ring colors and nails painted blue, McDonald looks like the world-class athlete he is. He captained the Paralympics curling team in Sochi last year. He also participated in the 2010 Vancouver games and intends to return for the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

McDonald tells the students about the 42-pound granite stone that they will soon push across pebbled ice. He briefly talks about the background of the sport. When asked, he tells them about his spinal-cord injury. In 1991, McDonald was serving in the U.S. military and stationed in Korea. On return from patrolling the DMZ, his unit's vehicle rolled over and McDonald broke his neck and back. 

Since then, McDonald has participated in sports ranging from table tennis to golf to basketball. Curling, however, became a great passion. He was introduced to it while living in Sacramento and was still a relative newcomer to the sport when he first tried out for the U.S. national team. Eventually, he moved his wife and two children to Madison, Wisconsin, where the coaches are based.

Patrick McDonald, seen here dressed in red, captained the U.S. Paralympics wheelchair curling team.; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Patrick McDonald, seen here dressed in red, captained the U.S. Paralympics wheelchair curling team.; Credit: Liz Ohanesian

Tonight's event is organized by Hollywood Curling, the only league in Los Angeles, and Triumph Foundation, a Santa Clarita–based nonprofit that helps people with spinal-cord injuries. Curling isn't as well known here as hockey or skiing, but, thanks to the Winter Olympics, it has piqued people's curiosity. Liza Beres, vice president of Hollywood Curling, estimates that they taught the sport to 1,300 locals last year.

In curling, teams of four people aim to throw and sweep stones toward a “button,” or target. Games are divided into “ends,” with points awarded to the team who finishes the end closest to the button. It's not just a throwing competition; curling relies heavily on strategy. Curlers have to think about how to throw the stone and when to sweep the ice in front of the stone in order to help it reach the target. “You're always thinking three or four moves ahead,” says Beres, who is originally from Canada, where curling is very popular, although she didn't start playing the game until she was living in Los Angeles.

There are very few curlers in the United States who play in wheelchairs. McDonald surmises that somewhere between 40 and 50 such players are scattered across the country. There are a couple of wheelchair-only tournaments, he says, but no leagues. However, the interesting thing about curling is that, with a few modifications, people who are in wheelchairs can play with people who aren't. Moreover, the equipment can be adapted to fit the specific needs of the players. At this clinic, one player has a “delivery stick,” used to push the stone, attached to a motorized chair. Others have sticks taped to their hands to help with upper-body mobility issues.

For players in wheelchairs, it's important to get out on the ice early so that their wheels cool. This is to keep the chairs from sliding on the rink. Additionally, when the game starts, someone will get behind the person in the wheelchair to keep him or her from going backwards. In curling leagues, where people of different abilities play together, a person who isn't in a wheelchair would likely be the spotter. In the Paralympics, another player in a chair with locked wheels does the job. Beres also points out that in Paralympic-style wheelchair curling, the players don't sweep the ice in front of the stone. “Their throwing has to be more accurate,” she says.

Event co-organizer Triumph Foundation has done a number of events to encourage people with spinal-cord injuries to be active in general athletic activities. Founder Andrew Skinner is quadriplegic, the result of a snowboarding accident that occurred shortly after he finished college, and wanted to help others in similar situations. The Santa Clarita resident has found a lot of joy playing quad rugby, also known as murderball, and takes groups hand-cycling, shooting and waterskiing. This is the second time that Triumph partnered with Hollywood Curling and the first time Skinner has participated himself.

“It was a lot more physically demanding than I anticipated,” he says. “You think that when you're going to be out on the ice that it's going to be cold. However, once your adrenaline starts going, your blood starts flowing, it was plenty warm.”

As for the other players, Skinner has high hopes for them. “I think we're going to give Patrick McDonald some new team members on his Paralympic U.S.A. team,” he says. “That's our goal.”

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