“Nice shot, Don!” Len Cooper needled his curling opponent at the Granite Club on a recent morning. “Took out [your] two rocks and left us three.”
Studying the rocks after the first end, Ralph Fritz shook his head. “We got wiped by the blind guys,” he grinned ruefully.
Cooper and his curling teammates, Norm Green and Jim Stephens, are all visually impaired. The men are three-quarters of the team heading to the blind curling championships in Ottawa Feb. 1-6. The fourth – and youngest – member of the team, Carrie Speers, was at work Wednesday morning.
Green, a resident of St. Clements, will be skipping the team in its second bid for a national title. Last year they lost in the semi-final round, after defeating the eventual winners, Team British Columbia, in round-robin play.
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The championship draws teams from across the country; Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick are the only provinces not taking part, and Ontario has two teams in competition.
Green and his crew curl against sighted people every second Sunday and have competed in the provincial championships several times, but the national championships present a unique challenge. In other matches, the team can have a sighted sweeper and a coach to act as the skip and call the line.
“We were shocked because they took the sighted sweeper away and our coach could not be on the ice with us,” Green said. “I curl with sighted people all the time, but I have a hard time calling the line.”
The team can have one sighted person to act as a guide. The guide describes the shot to the curler and ensures they’re lined up correctly in the hack, but they aren’t allowed to sweep, call the line, or touch the curler once they’ve started to deliver the rock.
That presents an extra challenge to Stephens, who is the only fully blind member of the team. He relies on someone to guide him down the sheet as he releases the rock. Stephens curled for decades before he lost his sight, but curling blind is completely different.
“I’ve had to relearn my balance. When you’re blind you have no sense of direction. I tend to walk to the left because I’m right-handed.”
Stephens is a B1 classification, someone with no vision. Each team must have a B1, a B2, who has less than five per cent vision, and a B3, who has five to 10 per cent vision.
Green, who is a B2, lost his vision in 1992 when he fell 18 feet onto his head at work. He can see enough to sweep, but when curling he can’t see the rock past the second hog line.
Acting as his team’s skip will be a challenge, but Green is eager to challenge British Columbia for the title.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said.