By Jim Force

Special to Wausau Pilot & Review

Matt Thums is the skip for the U.S. Paralympic Curling team – Contributed photo

Five to six nights a week, Matt Thums rolls his wheelchair onto the ice at the Wausau Curling Club and practices.

He locks the wheels, lines up his shot, then uses a long stick to push 40-pound granite curling stones rumbling down the ice toward gold colored Dixie cups he’s set up as targets in the “house,” the scoring area at the other end.

Shot after shot. Stone after stone. Lining up his shots with a laser, and tracking the speed of the stone with a timer.  

He’s practicing for the Paralympics curling competition to be held next March in Beijing, China. The USA team, which he “skips,” or captains, qualified for the Olympic sanctioned event last month by making the final four at the World Wheelchair Curling Championships, also held in Beijing.

Although they just missed a medal by losing the Bronze game to Russia, they racked up an impressive 9-5 mark, defeating the likes of Switzerland, Canada (twice), Italy, Norway, Korea, Scotland and others.

And for Matt, it was a great experience.

“COVID protocols were very tight, but the people were very nice,” he said.

And so was the facility—the famous Water Cube from the summer Olympics in Beijing, located in the center of the city and converted to a curling rink for the wheelchair event. 

“They called it the Ice Cube,” Thums said. 

The U.S. team has a distinctly “Cheesehead” look. In addition to Thums, Dave Samsa is from Green Bay, and coach Rusty Scheiber is from Oxford. Other team members are Steve Emts from Connecticut, Pam Wilson from Denver, and Batoyun Uranchimeg from the Twin Cities.

Wheelchair curling may be unique in that it requires one opposite gender team member to be on the ice at all times.

Team members are selected following intense competition, involving team trials and individual drills for accuracy in speed and placement of the stones. “You’re chosen for your skill sets,” Thums said.

The U.S. Paralympic Curling team. Contributed photo

Beijing bound

The U.S. team met up in Atlanta for a flight to Frankfurt, where they spent a few days acclimating to the time change and then flew on to Beijing with several of the European teams. Thums said the stopover was a chance to enjoy some authentic German food.

Competition began on Oct. 23 and ended on Oct. 30. China won, a team Tums said throws really hard shots, knocking opponents’ stones out of the house.

“They’re good at it,” he said, noting that he thinks he saw granite dust fly off one of the stones they hit. Swedan took second place, Russia third, and the U.S. came in fourth.

Wheelchair curling operates under the umbrella of the U.S. Curling Association, and Thums said the sport is growing, although he estimates there are less than 50 participants in the U.S. Wheelchair curlers need access to a curling facility that has a ramp, which allows them to move from the platform down onto the ice. Thums said he likes the fact that the Wausau Curling Center not only has a ramp but eight sheets (or lanes), meaning a sheet or two are usually open for practice.

Thums, who lives in Weston and is an accountant for Denyon Homes in Schofield, started curling after attending a “Learn to Curl” session at the Wausau Curling Club in 2012.

He’s moved up through the ranks year after year and now is poised not only to be the first athlete from the Wausau area to participate at the Olympic level, but a world champion as well.

“That’s our goal,” he said. “We want to be on the podium in Beijing. Gold would be the preferred color.”

Good curling, Matt!