A stone's throw away from Team USA

By Greg Bates | Nov. 13, 2014, 5:50 p.m. (ET)

WAUSAU, Wis. -- Sitting in his wheelchair, Steve Emt was silent. He looked down to compose himself.

When he started to talk, his voice cracked. He had a tough time holding back tears.

Emotions stirred inside Emt for good reason. Less than one hour earlier, it was announced that Emt was one of eight athletes who will compete for a spot on the U.S. wheelchair curling national team. The 44-year-old Emt had realized a dream.

“We haven’t done anything yet,” said a choked up Emt. “Made the team, that’s the first step, and now it’s time to get to the 2015 worlds and medal there and then get to the 2018 Paralympics and medal there.”

Emt finished in the top five during a skills competition at the Wausau Curling Club last weekend. The other four athletes who placed in the top five were 2014 Paralympians. Emt, who has already competed in two international events with Team USA early in the season, already feels accepted by his new teammates.

“He’s a great asset to this team,” said Jimmy Joseph, a three-time Paralympic curler and team veteran. “It’s a great thing for him to come in here and do it and to dedicate his time to this sport. He wanted to be on this team, and he made it. I’m so happy for him.”

Rewind two years, and Emt didn’t know the first thing about curling.

The Andover, Connecticut, resident was on vacation near Cape Cod in Massachusetts when he was approached by Tony Colacchio, an assistant coach for the wheelchair curling national team. Colacchio noticed the athletic-looking Emt, and the coach knew he had a potential star in the making.

“He recruited him right off the street, literally off the street,” national team coach Steve Brown recalled. “He gets out of his car and goes over and starts talking to the guy. ‘You want to curl?’”

“Steve probably thought he was hitting on him. Steve didn’t even know what curling was.”

Emt indeed didn’t, but he was interested.

“I said, ‘A, what’s curling? And, B, where do I sign up?’” Emt said. “With his help and support, it’s just two years of working hard and having goals and dreams.”

One week after his chance meeting with Colacchio, Emt drove 2.5 hours back to Cape Cod to start training. He instantly fell in love with the sport.

“It just clicked. I’m driven,” Emt said. "My wife and brother can tell you I'm driven. I'm a competitor. When Colacchio mentioned the Paralympics, I believed that I could go to war for my country, I could be an Olympian. I’m going to compete for the United States of America." 

Tears started to form again in Emt’s eyes while talking about curling for his country.

Emt, who was paralyzed from his waist down in a car accident in 1995, has always been a true competitor. An all-state honorable mention basketball player in high school, Emt went to West Point after being recruited for soccer. He ended up transferring to the University of Connecticut, and men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun allowed him to walk on to the team. Emt played for the Huskies for two seasons, 1992-93 and 1993-94, and was teammates with future NBA players Ray Allen and now-coach Kevin Ollie.

“He comes to us with an athletic background, which was extremely important,” Brown said. “From playing team sports in the past, he knows the dedication, the commitment, he knows the team dynamics and he knows how to overcome adversity through sport and through his disability both. That’s something that we haven’t really had in the past where we’ve got some real athletic background to kind of push people."

“He’s a good team leader that way, and he’s just going to be a natural fit on the team.”

From his time playing Division I college basketball — he’s also a middle school teacher who coaches basketball — Emt has always been a team player and vocal leader.

“He fits well with us,” 2014 Paralympic curler Penny Greely, another finalist for the national team, said. “He’s a real great team player, he’s a motivator, he’s a phenomenal shooter.”

Since Emt is still raw at the sport, he’s constantly learning. He’s picking nuances of the sport from his teammates and absorbing all the information coming his way.

“The only thing that’s slowing Steve down just a little bit is a guy like Jimmy Jam (Jimmy Joseph) has thrown 50,000 stones, and someone like Steve Emt has thrown maybe 1,500 stones in his life,” Brown said. “For the little time that he’s been involved in the sport, he’s just showed astonishing ability.”

Brown is counting on Emt to qualify for the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games and also make multiple U.S. wheelchair curling teams. His future is bright.

Emt isn’t too worried about the future; he’s worried about the present. Does he feel like he’s ready right now to compete for Team USA?

“Yeah, yeah. You’re killing me,” said Emt, who fought back tears again. “I’ve been ready for two years. This is the first goal of mine, and I want to continue on and bring on the world. Absolutely, absolutely.”

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.