Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Paralympic preview and predictions

Play begins at the 2010 Paralympic Games on Saturday when host team Canada takes on the nine nations with the best record over the past three World Championships. Japan, mostly on the basis of a 5th place in 2007, replace China, late-comers to international play, in the one change from the ten teams who competed at the 2009 Worlds in the same venue.

Canada skip Jim Armstrong's injury plagued season has kept the rumour mill grinding but there was never a real prospect that he wouldn't play. Lead Sonja Gaudet is the one returning 2006 gold medalist. Ina Forrest at 2nd and Darryl Neighbour at 3rd, makes alternate Bruno Yizek the one change from the team that after a sometimes shaky round robin, powered through the play-offs to win Canada's first ever World Championship last February.

Armstrong makes frequent reference to the absence of ego in the side, but it would have to be a very large ego to challenge the huge disparity in experience between the skip and his team. While four decades of curling brings obvious advantages in ice-reading and game management, it's Jim's throwing that excites coach Joe Rea.

"Who better, with all his experience, to throw the final stone?" he told me as the team wrapped up it's preparations.

"The thing we have been able to do this year," he said, "is work with the same group over two trips to Europe and several weekend camps. That's allowed us to try out different game plans, not all successful," he admitted.

"We've tried different things this season and have settled on a game plan we think works for us. We may alter it slightly depending on ice conditions, but essentially we'll be coming into the house early, keeping the front clean, and throwing 9 second takeouts.

"When we got into trouble last year it was through missing hits, and with extra weight you remove the ice as a factor."

No secret there, though last year opposing skips found it almost impossible to resist calling for low percentage (by wheelchair curling standards) hits on Canadian rocks to the side and to the back of the rings.

Then there's the University of Alberta's top secret Own The Podium financed performance evaluation and enhancement program. Everyone's sworn to double-secret probation against speaking about it.

"We were able to adjust a lot of things that were bio-mechanically incorrect," claims Phys. Ed. lecturer Pierre Baudin.

If Canada have a weakness it might be the team's over-reliance on Armstrong's leadership. Last year when Jim struggled, so did the team and especially Darryl at 3rd. The coaches deny that's an issue, but it's how it looked to me last year, and we have yet to see how well Jim can throw under pressure after his latest injuries.

The official team goal is on the podium, but to quote Jim: "I've never taken satisfaction from a contest that ended on a defeat."

Canada are heavy favourites, especially if their opposition, as last year, have not worked on a game plan to counter their strengths. But then, games can come down to one or two shots, and in a sport where excellence is still to be counted in the 60 percentile, there's lots of room for error - and upset.

Prospects - shock if not in play-offs, surprise if they don't take gold.

Great Britain, in contrast to Canada, made just one change from the Torino team who saw their gold medal flash away. Aileen Nielsen throws last rocks, replacing Frank Duffy, who retired. Michael McCreadie skips from 3rd, and Angie Malone and Tom Killin return at lead and second.

Two years ago the team began an experiment that moved their delivery point back from the hogline. Coach Pendreigh describes it as a "skill acquisition project" and professes surprise at the skepticism it has provoked.

"While we deliver softer weights from the back to allow us to use split times and gain the use of all the ice, we still have the ability to move to the front (for takeouts). This (gives) the team a larger range of shots ... The performance dip which was expected and managed may well have cost us (Worlds medals) but we all believed our long term goal of achieving  a top 4 spot at the Games was a worthwhile sacrifice.

"The team are much more comfortable with their new found talents and their understanding of the game and each other. Should we play anything close to our potential then all the work and effort will have been made all the more worthwhile.

"We relish the opportunity to play to Canada in the first game. I suspect there will be a degree of expectation on their shoulders and a passionate crowd with similar expectations……..I think it is therefore a good time to play Canada, but we have to play all the teams at least once!"

The GB team (all Scots) curl full-time. Aileen joins a group who have played and won at international level for many years, though Michael McCreadie, for all his playing experience, is one of the tournament's newer skips.

From the outside it appears Pendreigh took an unnecessary gamble changing delivery points. A subsequent rule change means everyone's stones can now be placed up to 6 inches off  centre at delivery, and the further the rock has to travel, the more opportunity it has to go off-line.

Prospects - On the podium if the experiment works. Exile to England for the coach if it doesn't.

Norway brought in a Dane, Per Christensen, to coach a team lacking in self-confidence after a disappointing 6th place in the 2009 Worlds, not helped by lack of local ice, since solved.

"They have the mental toughness, the willpower, to overcome these problems and they do not give up before the last stone. That is their strength," Christensen said after announcing an unchanged squad.

"The team has been on a constant curve, which should peak at the Paralympics. They have played  better and better during the season, winning January in Perth.
"Though it was difficult for the team in the beginning, our practices and adopting new tactics mean now I have a strong team and we are coming to Vancouver to play for Gold. No less, They were World Champions in 2007 and 2008.  It will of course not be easy, All the participating teams can win, with Canada as favourites. Our first goal is to get to the play-offs. After that anything can happen.

"Will we play Canada differently than other teams? I say we play our own game ... we will set up our play according to which team we are meeting. I have to find their weak sides and then play to them."
Norway is a team with proven athletes from other disciplines. They have an excellent record against Canada, winning a game potentially critical to both teams in the last round robin draw of the 2009 Worlds.

Christensen is confident Canada can be beaten. Norway have never posted impressive stats, but if their new coach adds improved execution to a plan that doesn't allow Canada to dictate the play, their knack of pulling out wins makes them serious contenders.

Prospects - play-offs, as the team you won't want to meet.

Sweden also have a new coach, multi-World Champion Tomas Nordin. He teams with a very experienced skip, Jalle Jungnell, who won bronze in Torino and silver with this squad last March. Nordin may bring some sophistication to a side that got sucked into attempting low percentage back 12 hits in their 2009 final loss to Canada.

Nordin has been away from the game for several years and was unfamiliar with wheelchair curling when he took the job. Jim Armstrong has remarked how steep he found the learning curve transitioning from the able-bodied game. The question for Sweden is has the coach had time to absorb the differences  and raise Sweden's game enough to win it all?

Prospects - play-offs if their maturity at skip is complimented by strategic and tactical improvements learned from one of curling's great players.

USA lean on their emotional skip, Augusto 'Goose' Perez, whose self-belief walks a fine line short of arrogance. He lives for the opportunity to make what Russ Howard describes as the "hero shot."

Team dynamics and communication have been a focus of preparation, Team Leader Marc DePerno said: "The extensive amount of time spent together has further reinforced team harmony.

"They devoted significantly more time and energy to their training regimen this season.  The team has participated in dozens of games against elite level able-bodied and wheelchair athletes which has resulted in marked improvement in their strategy and shot making abilities."

If USA play as a unit and position their early stones, they have a last rock thrower ready to rise to the big occasion.

Prospects - with a good start USA could - go - all - the - way, but should be happy to break 500 and possibly make the play-offs.

Germany came to the 2009 Worlds through the Qualifying Competition, posted
the best round robin record (7-2) and won bronze, albeit on a spectacular fluke re-direction of the games last stone.

They have an ebullient skip, Jens J├Ąger, a wonderful attitude and great fans who sing the team song. They also have a rare quadriplegic, Marcus Sieger, at third. What's needed for the next step?

"Good question," says coach Helmar Erlewein "The most important point is to maintain concentration from the round robin to the semi-finals. This was our big problem in 2009. We were not able to come back into the game as we wanted. But we are working on that.

"I don’t think that we will play Canada differently than other teams. We have a master plan which we can vary if required. Final decisions will be made from game to game."

Prospects - Performance this year has been spotty. They'll do well to finish above 500.

Korea scared everybody at the 2008 Worlds when they introduced a super-hitting style and smashed their way into the final. No one could match their hit weight. At last year's Worlds, neither could Korea, at least not accurately. The better teams adjusted to Korea's hitting game, and their coach seemed despondent that his team, who he had only met at the Championship, seemed unwilling to listen to his suggestions.

Korea played in the Richmond BC Cashspiel last November, finishing second to Canada. Success in Vancouver will likely depend on whether they have been able to add a draw game to their deadly hitting.

Prospects - with the element of surprise gone and teams no longer afraid of their hitting, no better than mid-table.

Italy arrived just before the start of last year's Worlds, began 4-1, beating Canada, then crashed to 4-5 as lack of fitness and experience took its toll. They have the skill to win as they proved by beating Germany in the 2010 Identa Cup but have comparatively little international experience or funding.

Prospects - they will do well to equal last March's record.

Japan has an average age of 51. Takashi Hidai (2nd)  is 75, Japan's oldest Paralympian and the Games' oldest athlete. They made a short visit to BC in November, winning their one exhibition game against Canada 8-3. They failed to qualify for last year's Worlds, earning their Paralympic spot on the strength of a 5th place in 2007.

They are all members of the Shinsyu Chair Curling Club that won the last five Japan Wheelchair Curling Championships. with skip Nakajima participating in each one.

Over 100 members of the Japanese media attended the send-off ceremonies for Japan's Paralympic team, but while media interest is high, it's doubtful they'll out-perform the 2007 team.

Prospects - an unknown quantity but unlikely to prosper against much more experienced opposition.

Switzerland completely rebuilt their team around skip Manfred Bollinger after going 3-6 on home ice at the 2008 Worlds. In 2009 they did worse, and will have to re-qualify in 2011. Bollinger is an excellent shot-maker, though he damaged his hand late in the year and withdrew from the team's last spiel.

Prospects - unable to do worse than last year.

Summary - Canada won the 2009 Worlds because they made their shots, coaxed their opponents into low percentage hits and always had a viable shot with skip stones.

I expect Canada, Sweden, Great Britain (aka Scotland) and Norway to have made the biggest improvements over last year, with GB having the largest potential for improvement.

Germany and USA over-performed last year and may struggle to repeat. Korea need to do more than hit. Japan replaces China from the 2009 Worlds line-up and with Italy and Switzerland will have to re-qualify for Worlds play. None of the three have shown they could challenge this year.

Prediction: Canada, Norway, GB, Sweden, USA, Germany, Korea, Italy, Switzerland, Japan.

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