THE next star of Scottish Paralympic curling may not yet have ever played the sport before, according to a top curling official.

British Curling is this weekend hosting of the first international mixed doubles wheelchair curling events since the World Championships last March, in the run up to the Paralympics in 2026.

The 2026 Milano Cortina Paralympic Games will be the first to include the event in its programme, following an announcement at the end of July this year.

Previously, the only option for Paralympic curling was the team event – a mixed-gender event which sees five competitors from each country compete against each other.

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Nigel Holl, executive performance director at British Curling - the body which oversees curling in the UK - said the inclusion of the mixed doubles as an elite level is “incredibly positive” for the sport.

He said: “It’s a cracking opportunity,” Holl said. “It’s fantastic that for the Paralympics we’ve now got two wheelchair medal events, I think that’s really, really good.

'It ups the ante'

“It ups the ante. It’s another opportunity to increase the profile of curling and frankly, it’s something that our very talented and dedicated wheelchair curlers deserve.”

He said that having more events is also an opportunity for more people to get involved in curling at the highest levels.

British Curling is currently running a Paralympic recruitment campaign, with no experience required for those interested, “only a drive to be committed, passionate and to develop your talent within the sport of wheelchair curling”.

Holl said: “Paralympic sport has a much shorter pathway from people taking the sport up to potential international success.

“It’s counterintuitive to how we think about elite sport in most senses but that’s where Paralympic sport is different.”

He said that while the Olympic curlers follow a more traditional route, with a nationwide youth competition structure, the lack of wheelchair players means the path to the Paralympics does not follow the same course.

“You can curl longer in life than you can in wheelchair rugby or something like that. There’s not that contact.

“We are on the lookout. We’re looking at other athletes retiring from other sports; we’re on the lookout for potential curlers maybe coming from the forces where they might have suffered injury through their services work; we’re talking to spinal injuries units where people have terrible accidents but actually want to get on with something in life and a sport could actually be something that really inspires them.”

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Holl highlighted Paralympic champion Joanna Butterfield (below) as an example of the way athletes can transition to become a top-level curler.

The National: Great Britain's Joanna Butterfield celebrates on the podium with her gold medal for the Women's Club Throw - F51 Final at the Olympic Stadium during the fourth day of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

He said: “Jo is a Paralympic champion in the club throw and I used to tease her when I used to work in athletics and say ‘Jo, there’s going to be a day where I’m going to get you curling, and you’re going to be a success’ and she always used to laugh about it.

“Well, she retired from athletics, her events changed and UK Athletics dropped her from their programme, so she picked up the phone and said ‘Nigel, about that trial opportunity you talked about …’”

Two years later, Butterfield has already represented Scotland at the international level, earning a bronze medal at the world championships in Vancouver last March as part of the Scottish team.

“She has a real future in the sport,” Holl added.

But he also said that “it is possible” someone entirely new to the sport of curling – even now – could make it to the Milan Cortina Games in three years’ time.

He said: “I think that window is shutting, but it’s not shut yet.

“We have a brilliant venue that we run basically 24/7, so we can get [new people] on the ice and give them a go.

“Some people go ‘bloody hell it’s cold, I don’t like sitting around in the cold I’m off to play tiddlywinks’ or something like that, and that’s fine. And others, like Jo, go ‘wow, this is kind of gripping and I can see the challenge.’ “It’s brutal, it’s a harsh world, elite sport. I love [our athletes] dearly, but if someone better comes along – they’re out.

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“So we’re on the lookout – at the same time as already having some really good athletes here. So it’s not going to be easy because they’ve got to put these guys out.”

This year will also be the first time an English programme will run alongside the historic Scottish Paralympic curling programme since its inclusion in the games, meaning there is even greater competition for spots than there has been in previous years.

'Not without its challenges'

Holl said that while the addition of the doubles event presents fresh opportunities, it is “not without its challenges”.

In the Olympics, curling is one of the few events which runs throughout the entire period, with the competition kicking off in Beijing before the opening ceremony had even happened.

So far, though, the Milan Cortino Games have suggested that the same won’t be true for the 2026 Paralympics, meaning the two wheelchair curling events will be fit into a tight timeline.

That means that it will likely be impossible for any athletes to compete in both the team event and the mixed doubles. In contrast, both Jen Dodds and Bruce Mouat competed in two events  in the Beijing Winter Olympic Games last year.

The fact that the mixed doubles event requires just two athletes means that smaller nations without as large a curling tradition as Scotland may be able to form a top-level pairing - even if they have never performed well in the team competition which requires a larger number of Paralympic-level curlers.

This was shown at the World Championships in March, where Poljina Rozkova and Agris Lasmans claimed the title for Latvia, who have never medalled in the traditional four-player version of the sport.

But Holl said this was not holding back British Curling from having high expectations.

He said: “We’re pretty damn ambitious if I’m brutally honest. I want to win two medals in the Paralympic games – I want to win one in the team event and one in the mixed doubles event.

“The guys out there, my coaches and the athletes, all know that.

“Overall, this is incredibly positive for Paralympic sport and for Paralympic curlers. You know, it’s about increased opportunity, increased diversity, increased visibility. The beautiful thing is mixed doubles can help with that.”