After near misses, U.S. wheelchair curling team eager to medal in 2015

By Greg Bates | Nov. 11, 2014, 1:12 p.m. (ET)
Penny Greely 
 Jimmy Joseph and Penny Greely are two of the returning national team members looking for medals in 2015.

WAUSAU, Wis. – Jimmy Joseph has endured a lot of heartbreak on the ice.

The eight-year veteran of the U.S. wheelchair curling national team has competed at three Paralympic Winter Games and seven world championships. During that time, Joseph and his teammates have only medaled once in major international competition, a bronze at the 2008 world championships.

Team USA, with Joseph playing in the second position, is coming off a fifth-place finish at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in March. That was quite disappointing after the United States had a legitimate shot at earning the bronze. In a match that sent the winner to the medal round, Team USA squandered a 5-1 lead in the fourth end and eventually fell by one point, 8-7, to Great Britain.

“Coming home from Sochi, that was the toughest loss for me because we were right there,” Joseph said. “I never take it that hard. It’s another year behind you. You can’t cry at things in the past, so I’m looking forward to the future.”

Four years earlier, Team USA placed fourth at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games. The team also finished fourth at the world championships in 2009 and ’13.

Joseph, aka Jimmy Jam, wants to change his team’s fortunes.

“We’ve got to get that medal, man. We’ve come so close,” the 52-year-old Joseph said. “It’s getting a little old. We bust our butts. We know we’re there with the other countries.”

Penny Greely competed in Sochi for her first Paralympic Winter Games and also felt the sting of just missing out on medaling.

“We were heart broken,” Greely said. “We played well, but we really thought that we were going to get at least the podium. That just makes us more motivated to work harder.”

U.S national team coach Steve Brown is hoping the 2015 U.S. team can break the trend and earn another medal. The team was narrowed down to eight athletes on Sunday after 13 competed in a three-day national tryout held at the Wausau (Wis.) Curling Club.

Four of the five athletes who competed at the 2014 Winter Games placed in the top five during the skills competition at the team tryout. Paralympians Joseph, Greely, Patrick McDonald and Meghan Lino, who was last year’s alternate, all were nominated for the national team, while newcomer Steve Emt also cracked the top five. Three other athletes are also still being considered for a spot on Team USA. They include 2014 Paralympian David Palmer — who is battling a right shoulder injury and curled left-handed — Tim Kelly and Pam Wilson.

In the next two months, the eight members will participate in a high performance camp in Blaine, Minnesota, and a competition in Utica, New York. By Jan. 1, the national team will be trimmed to five athletes who will compete for the 2015 World Wheelchair Curling Championship in February in Lohja, Finland.

Brown is excited about the national team’s potential after watching the athletes during tryouts.

“Everybody’s pushing each other to a new level, that’s the big thing,” Brown said. “Our infancy years, we were fortunate enough to get the five people to show up to even field a team, and all of a sudden they know they have to be working their tails off otherwise somebody’s ready to come in and grab their spot. The competition is basically pushing each other, and it’s a friendly competition.”

Brown, who coached the national team since 2005, believes the United States has started to close the gap over the years against the other curling teams from around the world.

“The only concern is the rest of the world’s doing the same thing,” Brown said. “No matter how hard we work, we know that the people across the seas are working just as hard. So we’ve got continue to develop and find new techniques to try and refine our equipment, to do everything we can to give us that little bit of edge, edge in strategy, all the way around.”

The Team USA curlers have their sights set on medaling at the world championships. Joseph knows his team’s success starts with conditioning, staying healthy and eating right. On the ice, the athletes just need to perform at the top of their game.

“Our draw weights need a little work, and we all know that and we’ve been stepping that up,” Greely said. “We can all do take outs, but it’s that finesse shot, the hard shots, that we really need to concentrate on this year.”

Joseph is confident Team USA can take a step forward at the 2015 world championships.

“We’re a medal team, no doubt on anybody on this team or the coaches,” Joseph said. “We just have to get over that little hump that’s just in front of us. We have to get over that hump and I think we’re going to be good to go.

“I’m predicting a medal this year. I feel really good about this team, and I’m impressed with the way everybody’s throwing. We got some high numbers out there this weekend. I’m ready to go and get a medal. I’m sick of not having any hardware. It gets old.”

Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past seven seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.