You know the saying, “can’t teach a dog new tricks”? Well, Oyuna Uranchimeg is proving that you are never too old to try something new.
Uranchimeg is 48 years old, an age that most people would consider athletes to be out of their prime. This isn’t the case for Uranchimeg, however, as she is a first-time Paralympian headed to the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics to represent the United States in wheelchair curling.
“As somebody who never really was involved in sports as much [growing up], I grew up dreaming about being in the Olympics or the Paralympics,” Uranchimeg said. “The last three or four years have been dedicated to this.”
Uranchimeg was born and lived in Mongolia until 2000 when she came to the U.S. to visit a friend who was living in Minnesota. Her original plan was to only stay for about a month until Uranchimeg got into a car accident that changed her life.
“I severed my nerve in my spine,” Uranchimeg recalled of the accident that occurred over 20 years ago.
Uranchimeg was flung from the car after the driver failed to slow down in a roundabout and lost control. At that time, she had left her six-year-old son back in Mongolia, and there weren’t any ways for Uranchimeg to get back home. She decided to stay in Minnesota, and it took Uranchimeg’s son eight years before he was able to come to America to be with his mother.
Six years ago, Uranchimeg decided to pick up wheelchair curling after being introduced to it by a friend at one of the national team’s training camps in Blaine, Minn. While attending, Uranchimeg met Rusty Scheiber, the assistant coach of the national team. Scheiber happened to mention the Paralympics, and a spark was lit for Uranchimeg to pursue a new journey.
“Rusty specifically said that if I am interested in this sport, and I keep at it, that there is actually a very good chance I could go to the 2022 Paralympics, and that kind of sold me right then and there,” Uranchimeg said.
Curling itself is a very adaptive and social sport. Uranchimeg, who lives in Minnesota and works as a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul noted that there are a handful of clubs in the Twin Cities area alone, making it easy to jump into the end of curling with people of all ages and skill levels.
There are a few differences in the way wheelchair curling is played compared to its able-bodied counterpart. Traditional curling has ten ends, while wheelchair curling has eight. There’s also no sweeping in wheelchair curling, just throwing the stone down the stretch of ice with the assistance of a delivery stick.
As an adaptive sport, curling has proven it isn’t only user-friendly to athletes who are paralyzed from the waist down — Uranchimeg has seen athletes who are quadriplegic be dead accurate at throwing the stone.
“Whatever disability you may have that puts you in a wheelchair, you can certainly grab a stick and heave the stone however it works for you,” Uranchimeg said.
Wheelchair curling is a co-ed sport so Uranchimeg will be heading to Beijing with Matthew Thums, Steve Emt, David Samsa, and Pam Wilson. According to Uranchimeg, it is typical for the sport to have more men than women competing in wheelchair curling. Uranchimeg also noted that teams traditionally are made up of three men and one woman, and that women traditionally play the “lead” and serve as the first person to throw a stone.
There is more responsibility and strategy that comes with being in the second or third throwing position, which, unfortunately, perpetuates inequity in the sport. The alternate is also usually a woman and is only called up if one of the team members can’t compete.
“More and more women are getting into the sport,” Uranchimeg said. “I hope in the future, there will be more and more experienced female players in the sport who can take on the roles as a second, third, or a skip, not just as a lead all the time. As I gain more experience and skills in the field, I'm hoping I will be playing as a second or third in the future.”
Photo credits: Getty Images