Canada takes wheelchair curling bronze at Paralympics

Canada's Dennis Thiessen, right, celebrates his team's victory with teammates Marie Wright, center, and Mark Ideson, left, after a mixed wheelchair curling game at the 2018 Winter Paralympics. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

GANGNEUNG, Korea, Republic Of — A Canadian curling team that had laughed and smiled its way through a roller-coaster Pyeongchang Paralympics was a puddle of tears after capturing bronze.

Moments after Mark Ideson, Ina Forrest, Dennis Thiessen and Marie Wright edged hosts South Korea 5-3 in Saturday morning’s bronze-medal game, the four raised their arms triumphantly. They gathered for a group hug. And they cried.

For Thiessen, a 49-year-old from Sanford, Man., the tears were about his battle with cancer, and not knowing if he’d ever be back on Paralympic ice.

"I’ve had a tough four years," he said, as Wright reached a comforting arm around his shoulders. "This was very emotional. I never thought I’d have the chance to do this again. My coaches who are the best in the world believed in me, and I’m here today, and got to play for Canada, and taking home a bronze. I can’t be happier."

Ideson’s tears were for his journey back from a helicopter crash in 2007 that left him a quadriplegic. The skip from London, Ont., was piloting a helicopter that crashed in a field near Cambridge, Ont. He suffered multiple fractures in his legs, pelvis, sternum, nose and neck.

"2007, after my accident, I couldn’t imagine being in this position," Ideson said. "I was a broken person and we were navigating new waters, and without the support of my wife and my family, I wouldn’t have made it here, that’s for sure."

Ideson, whose wife, two kids and parents cheered him on at the Gangneung Curling Centre, credits skeleton athlete Jon Montgomery’s brilliant beer-swilling victory celebration at the Vancouver Olympics as the moment he decided to become an elite athlete.

"After a life-changing accident, it puts new perspective on life," he said. "No matter the result that happened this week, I know that my kids were still going to love me, and my wife was still going to love me, and the sun was still going to come up tomorrow. I was emotional, I am emotional."

Wright’s story and sunny demeanour in Pyeongchang has made her a hero with fans back home.

"When I first started curling, I could never have really seen myself here," Wright said. "I have had a lot of feedback from home … My kids and my friends, they can’t go anywhere and somebody will say ‘Hey, I know your friend!’ or ‘Hey that’s your mom!’ It’s just exciting."

The 57-year-old from Moose Jaw, Sask., was driving on a dirt road in 1988 when she swerved to avoid a grain truck that had stopped suddenly with no brake lights. She was left a paraplegic, and one of her four daughters, riding in the backseat at the time, suffered a serious head injury and is in a nursing home now. Her husband bolted two years later, leaving her to raise her four girls alone.

Saturday’s bronze might as well have been gold.

"To me, it is," Wright said with a grin. "To me, it’s my first-ever Paralympic medal, it’s going to be my first time on the podium, and I had as many butterflies today as I had (in Friday’s semifinal), and I’m so excited."

Two of Wright’s daughters, Kyla and Tara, made the trip to South Korea, and were among the several dozen noisy Canadian flag-waving fans in the rink.

It’s not the medal the Canadians, including alternate Jamie Anseeuw and coach Wayne Kiel, were hoping for. Canada had swept the gold medals since the sport made its Paralympic debut in 2006 in Turin.

But in Friday night’s semifinal, the four played a magnificent game but dropped a heartbreaking last-rock decision to China. After the loss, Ideson said the four hugged, then hopped the bus back to the athletes village where they debriefed the game, had dinner, played a couple card games, and then went to bed early.

"Ultimately the colour of the medal doesn’t matter, it’s the flag on your back that matters," Ideson said.

Added Forrest: "In this field, a medal is a huge win. So (Friday) didn’t work out for us, but today to come back and play hard and still get a medal and go on that podium, that’s a big one."

The four played a methodical game Saturday, stealing two in the first end to lead the rest of the way.

Canada went 9-2 in the preliminary round stealing some incredible come-from-behind victories, to finish tied with South Korea and China atop the standings.

Wright was the lone rookie on the team. Forrest, from Armstrong, B.C., is already a two-time Paralympic gold medallist. Ideson and Thiessen were on the team that won gold four years ago in Sochi.

The Chinese beat Norway for gold later Saturday.

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