Advocate for disabled also wants to rock

Zosia Ettenberg is always up for new challenges.

Which is why the recipient of the 2008 Courage to Come Back Award and 2012 Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal took up wheelchair curling a couple of years ago.

The 68-year-old, who lives with post-polio syndrome, plays in the Wednesday morning Guys & Dolls League at the Langley Curling Club and is one of three wheelchair curlers who curl at the LCC – Canadian Paralympian Gary Cormack along with Renuka Senaratne are the others.

In just her second year in the sport, Ettenberg was asked to play with Team MacDonald at the B.C. wheelchair curling championships that runs Friday, Jan. 24 to Sunday, Jan. 26 at the Coquitlam Curling Club.

Ettenberg’s interest in the sport took hold in February 2010, when she attended the curling competition during the Vancouver/Whistler Paralympics.

While amazed at what she saw, Ettenberg noticed that she didn’t see any of the competitors in a power chair, which is what she uses.

Ettenberg knew there was a curling facility in Brookswood, so she enquired about taking part in the sport, locally.

“I spoke to several people and asked, ‘Can I curl here?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, no, you can’t curl here,’” she shared.

Time passed and Ettenberg got in touch with Langley Curling Club manager Nigel Easton.

The LCC is an ideal curling facility for Ettenberg and others in wheelchairs, after Langley Township installed a lift that allows curlers in chairs to access the ice in a “much easier and safer fashion,” Easton said.

“It was a nice thing for them to do,” Easton said.

Through Easton, Ettenberg connected with Cormack, one of B.C.’s most celebrated wheelchair curlers who has curled at the LCC for the past four years.

Cormack helped Canada capture gold in men’s curling at the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Torino, Italy.

“He started coaching me,” Ettenberg said.

Early on, Ettenberg wasn’t able to push the stone to the end of the ice.

“I was working hard. [I asked] Can I sneak forward? No, you can’t cross the hog line,” Ettenberg recalled, with a laugh. “Eventually I did it.”

Her first bonspiel was an international affair in Richmond.

“This was after curling one year on an able-bodied team; I had never played on a disabled team,” Ettenberg said.

Looking around the facility, Ettenberg was admittedly awed.

“The people I’m playing against: the Canadian Olympic champions who won gold in 2010, the Scottish Olympic team, the provincial champions, and I’m thinking, ‘What am I doing with all these people?’” she asked herself.

Her teammates also had decorated careers. One was the skip of the Quebec provincial team, one skipped Team Manitoba, and one was the skip of the Saskatchewan team.

“And there was me,’” said Ettenberg, who was the only curler at the event in a power chair. “I was so nervous.”

Playing lead meant she was the first one to shoot. The first four stones she pushed found their way into the house.

“This is even worse,” she said. “They’re going to think that I know what I’m doing! But everybody was so welcoming, so encouraging. I learned so much.”

The key to wheelchair curling is accuracy, Ettenberg said. Since there is no sweeping involved, success lies solely on the shoulders of the individual pushing the rock.

“I play on an able bodied team and all of the sudden they realized, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys have to be a lot more accurate,’” Ettenberg said.

Timing is another important element.

“They time your rock from [when] it crosses one hog line to the time it crosses the other,” she added. “With that, they can tell just exactly where it’s going to go.”

On Saturday, Jan. 11, Ettenberg returned to the Richmond rink for a training session, and her six-year-old service dog Rumor at her side.

It was a reunion of sorts with some of the elite curlers she encountered at her first-ever bonspiel.

“They remembered me from then because of the fact I had the dog,” Ettenberg said. “You might forget me but you won’t forget the dog.”

The yellow lab, which has been with Ettenberg for four years, lounges in the comfort of the lobby, greeting all who come into the room while her owner competes on the ice.

“Her hair would interfere with the way the rocks go,” Ettenberg said, about why Rumor remains off the ice.

Champion for disabled

Although she can walk short distances around her home in South Langley, Ettenberg has been using a wheelchair since 2001.

Stricken by polio at six months of age, Ettenberg’s childhood health challenges also led her into her first profession.

“By age six, I knew I wanted to be a physiotherapist, and that’s what I did,” she said.

She worked as a physiotherapist for 25 years. After moving to Langley from Ontario in 1985, she became director of rehab services at Langley Memorial Hospital.

“I was there in rehab for five years, and then they asked me to take on the education/quality assurance portfolio, so I did that for two years,” Ettenberg said.

After leaving LMH, she entered the financial management field.

Meanwhile, when she wasn’t working, Ettenberg entered the world of theatre.

In 1991, while acting in a show at Surrey Little Theatre, walked out onto the stage for a curtain call, and fell off the front of the stage and crushed her right knee.

At the time, doctors suggested a total knee replacement but Ettenberg felt she was too young for such a procedure.

Doctors eventually did a bone graft on the knee, while inserting a plate and six pins.

In 2001, she had a total knee replacement.

“At that point, I was left with a dislocated kneecap, and because of the polio muscles, there was an uneven muscle pull, and that, unfortunately, was not calculated when they set up the knee [replacement],” Ettenberg said.

Three years later, Ettenberg said she finally had the “20 minute operation to fix my knee.”

“And by that time my muscles had said, ‘That’s it!’” she related.  

Ettenberg advocates for people with disabilities.

She is the president and founder of the Langley Pos-Abilities Society, which helps improve the quality of life for people with disabilities, including those living with mobility issues, hearing loss, blindness, plus many other conditions requiring devices.

“The first thing I did when I came to Langley… is, I realized, there was no HandyDART,” Ettenberg said.

She made presentations to both Langley councils and set the wheels in motion to bring the door-to-door shared-ride service to Langley.

“It snowballed from there,” Ettenberg said. “I ended up sitting on several board of directors here, there, and everywhere else.”