Winter Paralympics in Torino, Italy

Winter Paralympics

Some 2,000 years ago, Roman emperor Augustus ordered a city to be built for stationing the troops who were protecting Rome's northern borders. That city was Torino.

Now the Italian city again plays host to well-trained combatants—this time battling each other in the ninth Paralympic Winter Games, the second-largest sporting event in the world (behind only the Olympics). After an opening ceremony at the newly constructed Palasport Olympico, 10 days of competition fill the two-week schedule, showcasing top-level competitors in a growing number of winter sports.

Skiing has always been a trademark sport of winter games, Paralympic or Olympic. In fact, the first winter competition held for people with disabilities, in 1948, was an internationally competitive three-track skiing contest. Today, the Paralympic Games ski-print the slopes with two main skiing events: Nordic skiing and Alpine skiing.

In popularity, Paralympic ice sled hockey—with its aggressiveness, competitiveness and parallels to Olympic ice hockey—draws the largest crowd of spectators. Wheelchair curling slides into the lineup this year, adding a new element to the Games.

Paralympics Past—The Road to Torino

Roots of the Winter Paralympics trace back to Austria, where Sepp Zwicknagl, a double-leg amputee, was among the first individuals to use prostheses to ski down a slope. Other innovations followed, such as the three-track skiing method, where an athlete uses one leg and two crutches. In 1948, seventeen athletes navigated the first course designed for three-track skiing, and a year later the first Austrian Championships were held in Badgastein, Austria.

The sport moved to Grand Bornand, France, in 1974 for the first world championships in three-track skiing. The events were downhill and cross-country skiing for athletes who had low vision or amputations.

Two years later, in 1976, the first Paralympic Winter Games were conducted in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. Subsequently the Games moved to Geilo, Norway, in 1980 and then back to Austria for the 1984 events in Innsbruck. World recognition grew in 1984 when exhibition skiing events for Paralympic athletes were held during the Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and the following Paralympic Games (1988 in Innsbruck, Austria) saw 397 athletes from 22 countries compete.

In 1994, the Paralympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, added ice sled hockey, which became an immediate crowd favorite. The Lillehammer Paralympics marked the first time the Paralympic Winter Games were held in the same location as the Winter Olympics, a tradition that has continued through an agreement of cooperation between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee.

The 1998 Nagano Winter Paralympics in Japan were the first to be held outside of Europe, and the following Games in 2002 in Salt Lake City were the first on U.S. soil, hosting 406 athletes. The 2002 Games proved that public interest in the Paralympics was solid, with 85 percent of the 250,000 available tickets sold.

The industrial city of Torino was selected as the site of the 2006 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, marking the first time since 1956 that Italy has hosted the Winter Games. The opening and closing Paralympic ceremonies and the ice sled hockey competition are being held in Torino proper, with the surrounding cities Pinerolo, Pragelato and Sestriere Borgata serving as sites for the other Paralympic events.

For more information about the Paralympic Games, visit


“Would you like to go to Switzerland and play in the first-ever World Wheelchair Curling Championship?” Wes Smith asked co-worker Danell Libby in 2001.

“Yes, I’d like to go to Switzerland,” Libby responded, thinking the trip would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “But what is curling?”

Libby went to a curling practice and, just as Smith had some time before, she fell in love with the strategic sport. The two went on to Switzerland in 2002 with the U.S. wheelchair curling team and finished fifth in the championship.

Now Libby and Smith are making another trip together, only this time the competition is a little tougher, the stakes a little higher, and the carrot dangling at the end of the stick a whole lot bigger. Wheelchair curling—a sport increasing in exposure, particularly in the Northeastern United States—is exploding onto the Italian ice. At the Paralympic Games in Torino, Smith, Libby and five other athletes from the United States are breaking new ground for Americans, new ground for Paralympic athletes and new ground for wheelchair curling.

The 2006 Paralympic Winter Games mark the debut of wheelchair curling as the fourth sport in a 10-day lineup of events. In Pinerolo, just 22 miles from Torino, the wheelchair curling competition pits eight teams against each other for the first-ever gold medal handed out for the sport.

Joining Smith and Libby—a two-time World Wheelchair Curling Championship team member and former Wheelchair National Champion—are Jim Pierce and Jim Joseph, who both competed at the 2005 World Wheelchair Curling Championship, and Augusto Perez, a rookie who completes Team USA’s lineup. Tom Hansen and Melissa Keiser are alternates for the squad.

“This has certainly been a goal of mine ever since it became approved as a Paralympic sport,” says Smith, a 65-year-old accomplished curler. “I feel it is now recognized as a legitimate sport. The Paralympics always seem to be the ultimate sporting event and will help promote curling for people who are not too familiar with it.”

Smith not only champions curling, but also encourages all sports for people with disabilities. “I have a spinal cord tumor that has affected the use of the lower part of my legs,” he says. “My first operation in 1978 affected my right leg, and the second in 1995 affected the left. That’s when I had to start using a wheelchair.”

Moving to a wheelchair didn’t quell Smith’s active sports life—it just moved him to a different arena. After working as a recreation director, he became active in wheelchair tennis, basketball, sled hockey, skiing and kayaking. He coordinates, coaches and plays on a wheelchair basketball team and on a local sled hockey team near his home in Glenburn, Maine.

Not only does Smith play the sports, but he sees that others have the opportunity to play as well. Smith coordinates a monthly program called Youth in Motion, which provides games and sports for children with disabilities and offers wheelchairs to their parents, siblings and friends to encourage participation by all. “The reason I am so involved is that I enjoy the physical exercise and I have seen how sports activities have helped adults and children with socialization, health and self-esteem,” he says. “But the other sports have started to take a back seat since I have been involved in curling.”

Curling began in Europe in the 15th century, with the present style of play dating back to 17th-century Scotland. Each athlete slides a stone across the ice, trying to land it closest to the target, called the house. The first player delivers a stone and then the opponent counters in a process Smith calls “chess on ice.” U.S. coach Steve Brown explains, “There’s a lot of emphasis on finesse, touch, coordination and balance.”

The sport made its way to America in the 1820s, when the Detroit Curling Club began competing. Nevertheless, curling wasn’t added to the Olympics until 1998, the same year European athletes with disabilities began participating in the sport.

Smith himself helped bring wheelchair curling to the United States. He works at Alpha One, a center for independent living that promotes the abilities of all citizens. In 2001, the organization received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to promote ice sports for people with disabilities. As the project manager, Smith set up a clinic for people with disabilities at the Belfast Curling Club in Maine. From the beginning, he had bold ambitions. He explains, “In March of 2001 the United States Curling Association found out that the first World Wheelchair Curling Championship was going to be held in Sursee, Switzerland. That competition became the carrot I used to recruit the original six players, and we started curling as a team in November 2001.”

Libby also worked at Alpha One when the grant was approved, and Smith soon approached her about joining the curling squad. A 37-year-old mother who had been paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident, Libby had a sports background, mainly in wheelchair basketball, where she had competed on a national level.

“With each year and each competition, the World Wheelchair Curling Championship becomes more intense,” says Libby, who now works as a statewide coordinator for the New York Association on Independent Living. “All the players on all the teams have grown in equal proportions, making these competitions so worth watching from every level.”

Watching Torino with a close eye is Diane Brown, wife of the U.S. team coach Steve Brown. Having herself coached the U.S. team during its infant years, she handed over the whistle this year to her husband, who has more than 30 years of curling experience, but joins him in brainstorming strategies.

Steve Brown spent much of the past few months traveling to meet individually with his team members for five-day training sessions. At these mini-camps the athletes spent most of their time on ice, rehashing strategies and participating in sport psychology exercises. “Scotland and Canada are heavy favorites in the Games, and they’ve had programs in place with training and physical therapy for their athletes,” Brown says. “That’s what we’ve tried to do as well.”

He’s confident the training will pay off.

“Our team’s goal is to be in the medal round, and that’s a very realistic goal,” he says. None of our athletes has looked at Torino as a neat opportunity for travel—it’s an opportunity to show they’re one of the best teams in the world.”

ABILITY Magazine
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