Wheelchair curler Penny Greely ready to rock in Sochi

By Jamie M. Blanchard | March 06, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)
Penny Greely
Penny Greely and teammate Jimmy Joseph at the 2013 world championships in Sochi, Russia.

It came down to the last stone.

At the Wheelchair Curling Federation’s 2013 World Wheelchair Championship in Sochi, Russia, Team USA was playing China in the bronze-medal game at the Ice Cube Curling Center, and fell 6-5 to China behind successful last minute attempt by Haitao Wang.

It was a disappointment for the U.S. team to leave the test event for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games without a medal. But it only fuels Penny Greely’s desire to make the podium at the Games, something that the United States has never done before in a major wheelchair curling competition.

“I know what the feeling is like when you’re on the podium,” Greely said. “I know how proud you feel when you’re representing your country and you receive that medal. I know the feeling. I know what it’s like when all of your hard work comes together. A Paralympic medal is just a different feeling than anything else you’ve experienced before. I want to feel the way I did in Athens again in Sochi.”

Athens was the site of the 2004 Paralympic Games. Greely was on the U.S. Paralympic Women’s Sitting Volleyball Team, helping Team USA to a bronze medal in the inaugural women’s sitting volleyball competition.

“At the time, the sport was more popular in Europe and Asia than in the United States,” Greely said. “Even though we had been training well leading into Athens, we were all so new to the sport that we didn’t anticipate a medal, but we ended up winning bronze. We worked really hard for the bronze.”

Greely was a Paralympic bronze medalist after just a few years in the sport. She hopes to replicate the success in Sochi, only four years after she took to the sport of wheelchair curling.

Greely, an amputee, was exposed to adaptive sports when she watched the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games.

“A couple years later through email correspondence, the coach invited me out to a training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and I learned sitting volleyball from the basics,” Greely said. “We piloted the first ever women’s sitting volleyball team then went on to compete in Athens at the Paralympic Games.”

Following her bronze medal, she moved on from competitive sport. Greely had a husband, David, and a young stepson, Nathan, and a job as a caseworker for Brown County.

“As one of the older people on the team, I wanted to move on with my life,” said Greely, who was in her 30s at the time. “I had gotten married and had a stepson. It got to be too much with the traveling and all of that. We had a relatively young team that I knew could carry on the torch for the next couple of Games. I knew they could be successful without me.”

The team went on to win a silver medal in Beijing while Greely stuck to recreational sports.

“I was playing some wheelchair basketball in Green Bay,” she said. “One of the captains of a team called the Green Bay Horizons, which I was practicing and playing with, had an interest flyer from one of the coaches from the wheelchair curling team. The U.S. team was doing some outreach to other sports to get exposure with new athletes.”

His flyer worked.

It sparked an interest.

It sparked an unlikely career.

“The development camp happened to be in Green Bay,” she said. “I emailed the coach to find out what it was all about.”

She was on the ice quickly.

“At the time, the wheelchair curling club was only a couple miles from my house, so I thought I could give it a try,” she said. “I showed up and threw my first stone in July 2010.”

Greely went to the trials for the world championships. She finished sixth, one spot shy of the team, but was called up after another team member required surgery.

“I came home and asked my husband: ‘What do you think of doing another Paralympic sport?,’” she said. “His reaction was ‘Wheelchair curling?’ He didn’t even know I had any interest in it. Neither did I. I had never done it before. Four or five months later, I was an alternate on the U.S. team. It just kind of fell into my lap I would say.”

Greely decided to go for it.

“My step-son, who is 17 now, was old enough for me to be able to make a commitment to a new sport,” she said. “He was young when I was playing sitting volleyball so I had to worry about him a little bit more when I was off traveling.”

Greely packed her bags and she became a U.S. wheelchair curler.

“I didn’t know if I would enjoy it or not enjoy it,” she said. “When I tried it, I enjoyed it. It’s more of a mind game, a strategic game. That aspect really appealed to me.”

It was different than sitting volleyball.

“Curling is still a team sport like sitting volleyball,” she said. “When I was in sitting volleyball, I played with five other people on the court. I am on the ice playing with three other people. You still have to have the same team dynamics. You’re not playing off of each other though like you are in sitting volleyball. You are responsible for what you do with your stones. It’s kind of an individual sport but you have a team, which is different. I enjoy team sports. I like the team dynamics. What’s different than sitting volleyball is that you’re more individualized as far as what you’re doing when you have your two stones.”

Greely was surprised at how quickly she reached the national and international level. But she is up for the challenge of competitive wheelchair curling.

“Our goal is to get on the podium,” she said. “We’ve been training very, very hard to get to one of the medal spots. Ultimately, it would be great to get gold, but we’re setting our expectations to just be on that podium. We’ll be proud of ourselves if we take first, second or third.”

Whatever the finish, she hopes it does not come down to the last rock.

“We’re very hungry to get past that point of being fourth or fifth,” she said. “We’re right at that point where we can get on the podium. I think we’re going to peak at the right moment. We’re going to peak in Sochi. We do so well in the round robin. At the worlds, we were 5-0 in the round robin. It just came down to that one stone.”