Patrick McDonald finds calling on curling ice
Patrick McDonald, a U.S. Army veteran, competed for Team USA in wheelchair curling at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games.
The stone slides out of his hand, smoothly gliding across the ice with precision and purpose. Forty pounds of granite leave the hand of Patrick McDonald, travel 145 feet, inching closer and closer to the house. Few in the United States are better on a curling sheet than him.
A time forgotten
Growing up, Patrick McDonald was involved in all kinds of sports. Action and adventure were part of his upbringing.
“Until I got to high school, I was only doing two things,” said McDonald. “I was racing motorcycles out in the desert and I was playing soccer.
“When I got to high school, I did some junior rodeo and joined the football team, but I also kept doing the other two.”
McDonald was all over the sports world as a young man, experiencing the thrill of competition in many avenues of his life.
Then he lost these memories.
“The last 21 years I’ve tried to remember what I can and read books of what my mom and dad had written down: scrapbooks, pictures, and stories from family and friends.”
McDonald enlisted in the Army, heading off to represent his country overseas. He was serving the United States in South Korea when the accident that would redirect his life took place.
“I was a cavalry scout and we were on our way back from maneuvers and patrols near the demilitarized zone,” recounted McDonald. “I was in the back, so I didn’t see it, but the ground gave way and we rolled the vehicle.
“I broke my C4, C5 and T4 through L1 in my back.”
Fortunately, McDonald did not severe his spine in the accident. This was Nov. 15, 1991.
McDonald still is unsure why he wasn’t medevac’d back to the United States until Feb. 1992, but those three months after the accident would prove difficult.
“There was something written incorrectly in my chart,” explained McDonald. “Instead of getting one shot a day, I was getting two. This happened for the first six weeks, until Christmas Eve.”
On Christmas Eve 1991, McDonald suffered a pulmonary embolism as a result of overdosing on medication--he flat-lined for a little over five minutes.
“Luckily, everything ended up being okay with that. Well, other than losing a lot of my memory from my childhood.”
McDonald wasn’t the first in his family to be injured while fighting for his country. McDonald’s grandfather was injured while serving during World War II and lost his leg.
“I think having that circumstance in my life helped me quite a bit,” said McDonald. “I’ve never really noticed if people are in wheelchairs, and I think being around my grandfather when he would be using his made it no big deal.”
His grandfather not only made a wheelchair part of the norm in McDonald’s life, he was a shining example of how life doesn’t have to change after an accident.
“He was still holding down a full-time job and taking care of his family, so that was a good thing for me to see.”
Throughout his recovery, McDonald remained positive, in part from seeing how successful his grandfather was after being injured in war.
“I learned when I was a kid that negativity stagnates and positivity generates,” quoted McDonald. “I’ve always been a positive person. Rehabbing from my accident was tough at times, but it was just the path I was on in life.
“My path was changed, so now I’m on a different one and it means using a wheelchair, but life is grand, everything is good.”
When McDonald was finally returned to the United States, he began his rehabilitation from the accident at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. During his time there, he found an inspiration, a calling on the walls.
“Going through rehab in Palo Alto, there were posters on the walls of the Veterans Summer Games and the winter clinics,” McDonald recalled. “Seeing downhill skiers, cross country skiers and basketball players still doing that was awesome.
“It was like, okay, cool, if these guys can still do it, and my grandfather can still do anything, then I’m going to be able to do whatever I want.”
From there, sports again became McDonald’s passion, taking part in all sorts of competitions in various sports.
“I got pretty heavily involved with sports the first four or five years I was hurt,” said McDonald. “I played for the Sacramento Kings wheelchair basketball team, I swam, I did triathlons, I did pretty much everything I could.
“After I met my wife, I got into golf. At my best, I established a 1.5 USGA handicap and held the world record for longest drive from a wheelchair at 358 yards.”
Golf became his passion. He became so involved in the sport, he paired with a friend to design a line of adaptive clubs made to be swung from a seated position.
As much as he loved golf, there was still something missing.
“I knew my ultimate goal was to be the best,” McDonald said. “But, there is no real best in disabled golf, and I knew swinging from a wheelchair I was never going to put on a green jacket or win a U.S. Open.
“So I started to concentrate on my Paralympic sports: shooting and table tennis. I started training and worked my way up to playing on the national table tennis team.”
Unfortunately, the United States only brought four table tennis athletes to the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. McDonald did not compete.
Finding his game
After missing his chance for Beijing glory, McDonald went to the U.S. Paralympics website, where he reviewed the five sports in the Paralympic Winter Games programme, and found one that really stuck out to him.
“I’ve always been fascinated by curling,” he explained. “I decided to look into it and found a curling club a little over an hour away from where I was living.
“I went down to the Wine Country Curling Club, and they were great. I met them and they opened their arms to me. It was Jerome Larson who I first talked to, who got me excited about curling.”
McDonald wasted no time. By the time U.S. trials came around in 2008, McDonald was going to give it a shot. Having thrown, by his estimation, around just 50 stones before trials, he attempted to make his first curling national team.
He finished sixth. The first five make the traveling team, so he was left at home as an alternate.
“I had completely fallen in love with the game and wanted to continue,” said McDonald of the disappointment of not making the team. “I went home and worked hard for the next year. I moved to New York about a month before trials to get more time on designated ice.”
In 2009, McDonald would make the team in the fifth spot. They travelled to Vancouver for the world championships, where Team USA finished in fourth place.
2010 would be McDonald’s first shot at a Paralympic Winter Games, and he would not be watching from home as he had during Beijing in 2008.
“The same five from 2009 ended up being the Paralympic team,” explained McDonald. “The bronze medal match came down to the final stone, and we lost by about half an inch.”
Even without a medal, the experience of competing in the Games is one that McDonald will never forget.
“To be able to have ‘USA’ on the back of your uniform, representing the country like I had in the military, was amazing. There was so much camaraderie on Team USA, hanging out in the village. Then seeing the stands filled and people cheering you on, every night was sold out.
“Looking up into a crowd of people as they are waving American flags and wearing sweatshirts with ‘USA’ across the chest is pretty amazing.
“To me, being a veteran, being able to represent your country to the best of your ability like I did with a military uniform, and now with a Paralympic uniform, it means everything. We live in the greatest country on the planet. It just means everything.”
After having shoulder surgery in 2011, McDonald has rededicated himself to the game of curling. He moved his family from California to Madison, Wis., to live, “the life of a curler.”
His family has embraced the game, and it has become a cornerstone of their lives.
“My wife got into curling; it’s something for us to do together. So we go to the gym together and workout together and she has even started curling in the women’s league.
His wife is not the only member of the family that has taken an interest.
“My daughter is 10 and she is an outstanding curler,” said an excited McDonald. “She curled a few times last year and now she is a full-time curler and member of the club. She has been working with some high-end coaches, including Coach [Steve] Brown from the wheelchair team and Debbie McCormick, who was the skip of the past couple U.S. women’s teams.”
As for his own career, McDonald, now the skip of the U.S. national wheelchair team, see’s possibilities with his new team.
“I think we have a great combination of experience and new guys. We’ve showed the rest of the countries and critics that the U.S. has a great wheelchair curling program, and we are working just as hard, if not harder, than they are. So I’m shooting for the podium this time around.”
The team will compete in the World Wheelchair Curling Championships in Sochi, Russia—the site of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games—in Feb. 2013, before preparing for the Paralympic Winter Games.