|Dave Palmer of Sandwich releases a stone during a match at the Falmouth Curling Club. He is being supported by Mike Cameron of Sandwich. He was selected to go to South Korea to participate in the world championships of the sport.|
FALMOUTH — On three nights a week, maybe four if there's a tournament, Mashpee resident Dave Palmer spends hours at the Cape Cod Curling Club.
Acting as "skip," or team captain, Palmer, 51, plays two-and-a-half-hour games of curling with the goal of beating the other team — and showing them that the wheelchairs he and three team members rely on have no bearing on their ability to notch wins.
Next month, Palmer will try to reach that same goal but at a much higher level. On Feb. 18, he will head to Chuncheon City, South Korea, for a week to compete with four other Americans in the annual World Wheelchair Curling Championship.
"I'm not so nervous about the playing, more about the travel," Palmer said. "A 19-hour flight when you can't get up and move around and stretch and go to the bathroom makes me nervous."
Palmer almost had company on the trip from another Cape wheelchair team member; Meghan Lino, 27, of East Falmouth, made it to the eight-person preliminary team for several tournaments in the U.S. and Canada but was cut from the final team heading to Southeast Asia.
CHESS ... ON ICE
Like the ice they play on, ridged slightly to help the 42-pound stones that the curlers push stay on target, Palmer and Lino's journey to the top of their sport was bumpy.
After a motorcycle accident 18 years ago shattered a vertebra, Palmer, a father of three who works part-time at Quashnet Elementary School, became a paraplegic and reliant on a wheelchair.
Always athletic, less than one year after his accident Palmer was back to skiing and playing hockey thanks to special devices, he said.
But the demands and growing competition in the sports led him to look for another option, he said.
Palmer met Lino, who was born with spina bifida, at a charity curling event at the Cape Cod Curling Club four years ago and began learning the sport along with other "members of our core group," said Tony Colacchio, coach of the Cape Cod Curling Club's wheelchair team.
It took months to learn the rules and just as long to get comfortable on the ice and with the tactics needed to play on it.
"People call it shuffleboard on ice, but there's a lot of strategy. "» I like to compare it to chess on ice," Palmer said.
Learning to play against "able-bodied" players, he said, brought an added challenge to the game.
While able-bodied curlers can use brooms to sweep the stones down the ice and guide them into the "house," or goal, wheelchair curlers only have one chance — when they shoot — to get the stone on the right trajectory.
"Their accuracy has got to be deadly, and their speed has got to be dead-on," Colacchio said.
And finding players in wheelchairs has been a challenge, Lino said.
"Our first year as a team it was like 14-0, every game," she said.
But practice and patience have brought them both to the national levels of wheelchair curling — and Palmer to international competition.
"Now they're winning at least 50 percent of their games" against able-bodied players, Colacchio said.
TRAINING FOR THE FUTURE
Palmer's trip to South Korea with other members of the U.S. team is just a first step in showing the wheelchair team's accomplishments and hopefully bringing more interest to the sport, Colacchio said.
The Cape Cod Curling Club in Falmouth is one of only a handful of clubs around the country that offer the sport for people in wheelchairs, and the only one in the state to do so, Colacchio said.
If it goes well, and Palmer makes the team again next year, he could be headed to the much-bigger Paralympic Games — the equivalent of the Olympics for people with disabilities, he said.
"The club is so happy and so supportive of Dave," Lino said.
Lino, too, could be headed for bigger things, and wants to try out for the national team again next year for a chance to make it to the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
"That's the team I want to make," she said, pointing to a tattoo of an artistically rendered wheelchair curler she got inked on her arm a week prior, "because this is how much I love curling."