Steve Emt (C) celebrates with his U.S. teammates during a wheelchair curling game at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 13, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
As the only returning member from the 2018 U.S. wheelchair curling team, vice skip Steve Emt is ready to write a new chapter for the team at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
After the Americans finished fourth at last year’s world championships — the country’s best placement since taking third in 2008 — they are aiming to make the Paralympic podium in wheelchair curling for the first time with a new-look squad that, according to Emt, is composed of an array of personas.
“We are a beautiful mutt of a dog,” is how Emt described the team. “We have a little bit of pit bull, of a poodle, of a Pomeranian. Our personalities are opposites who attract. The five of us each bring something to the table, and together we are a family.”
Emt, the self-proclaimed spokesperson of the team, will be joined in Beijing by skip Matthew Thums, second David Samsa, lead Oyuna Uranchimeg and alternate Pam Wilson, with Rusty Schieber serving as coach.
They’ll look to reverse the disappointing last-place finish four years ago at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. The quest begins Saturday March 5 against Slovakia in pool play. The tournament semifinals and medal rounds are March 11-12.
“You can easily get lost in the experience of the Paralympic Games because it’s such an incredible experience,” said Emt, a former UConn basketball player in the 1990s, prior to being injured in a car crash. “That happened a little bit in 2018. We didn’t deserve to win, and it’s different now with this team. We expect to win now. I’m telling everyone to enjoy themselves, but we’re going over there to win.”
Team USA’s top Paralympic finish was fourth at Vancouver 2010. After the disappointing showing in PyeongChang and then missing the 2020 world championships, the U.S. had to win its way into the 2021 tournament by winning the 2021 world “B” championships.
From there the Americans were back at the world championships last fall, reaching the semifinals before losing to eventual champions China. China is also the defending Paralympic gold medalists and is expected to be a favorite again in Beijing.
Thums, who is an accountant during the day, will be making his Paralympic debut after he began curling at his local club in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 2012. He and Emt are joined by another Wisconsinite in Samsa, who is from Green Bay, and Uranchimeg, a native of Mongolia who has called Minnesota home since 2000.
“Steve keeps telling everybody it’s a life-changing experience. I’m excited to go, but the weight of it all hasn’t set in yet,” Thums said. “Finishing on the podium is the primary goal. The gold medal is the ultimate goal, but finishing in the top three would be outstanding for the program right now.”
For alternate Wilson, a 66-year-old physician from Westminster, Colorado, she equated this experience to her own Mt. Everest climb, having dabbled in and out of sports between her medical career for decades. She has competed in several sports at an elite level, making her international debut in wheelchair curling in 2019. Her healthcare co-workers recently put a 20-by-8 feet poster of the team inside their clinic to make their patients aware of the talent helping them out this winter.
“I’m going to be the old lady on the team, and I’m actually quite proud of that,” Wilson said. “I like being able to go out and throw 10,000 rocks. It’s a community sport, and there’s a real sense of family with it.”
While the pandemic has certainly interrupted the team’s ability to train together in-person, they’ve all hit the ice five days a week in their own communities and gather every Thursday via video call for a virtual strategy session. Individually, they also take part in meditation, visualization exercises, dry firing and watching game footage almost every day when they can.
“You have to put in a lot of time in to build up your muscle memory,” Thums said. “The toughest thing is being mentally present for each shot. You can’t let your mind wander to other things or think about anything negative when you’re shooting.”
With the Olympics having wrapped up in Beijing just two weeks prior to the Paralympics, the U.S. Olympic curlers planned to brief their Paralympic counterparts on the ice and venue conditions to further prepare them to help take on top wheelchair curling contenders such as Norway, Sweden, China and the RPC.
As in the Olympics, the curling will take place in Beijing’s famous Ice Cube, which fans around the world were first introduced to in 2008 when it was called the Water Cube and hosted swimming events at that year’s Summer Games.
While Emt’s goal for the team is to medal, he’s already ecstatic to have helped grow the wheelchair curling community in the U.S. from the dozen elite participants when he started eight years ago to the nearly 60 there are today.
And for those 60, including the five heading to Beijing, they are all constantly tweaking their strategy and tactics in hopes of putting Team USA on the Paralympic podium for the first time.
“One percent. That’s our motto,” Emt said. “We try to get better by one percent each day as individuals and as a team.”