When a spinal tumour left him confined to a wheelchair, Bruno Yizek found himself unable to play the sport he loved — curling.
Now, over 18 years later, Yizek is back on the ice and heading to the Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games as the fifth player on Canada’s wheelchair curling team.
Jack Smart, (front) the skip of Team Alberta's wheelchair curling squad, and Bruno Yizek (back) watch one of Smart's shots make its way down the ice in practice last week. Yizek, 62, is the fifth player on Team Canada and will be competing in the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver this month. Their first game is on Saturday March 13.
Photo: Elisabeth Heslop/Calgary Journal
The first-time paralympian led a successful Calgary team and Team Alberta as skip for several years, but he never dreamed he would be on Team Canada.
“Who would have ever thought this old boy would be part of the Paralympics?” Yizek, 62, said with a chuckle.
Martin Purvis, Team Alberta’s second, said it was a big deal when he and the rest of Yizek’s regular team found out their friend and teammate had been selected for the national squad.
“We were all really excited when we heard,” Purvis said.
“I feel definitely proud that one of my team members has made the team,” said Jack Smart, the current skip of Team Alberta and the man who led the province’s team to silver in the 2009 Canadian Nationals.
“It raises the bar for me,” he added, noting that he and the Alberta team will be competing in the 2010 National Championships in Kelowna the same week that Yizek and Team Canada will be taking on the world in Vancouver.
Purvis and Smart said they have all made an effort to help Yizek prepare for the Paralympics by spending extra time helping him practice and making sure he gets games whenever possible.
“He’s on Team Canada but he’s still a member of our team in my mind,” Smart said. “He’s just going to play a different tournament.”
Yizek said he started curling at age 20. In the summers he played competitive fastball and some golf. Then his back started to hurt, and it got progressively worse over the next five years as doctors tried to figure out what was wrong.
He said at first the doctors told him the pain was just a sign of old age, but eventually, they knew it had to be something more.
“It just got progressively worse and worse and worse, and pretty soon I was dragging my leg and it was hard to walk up stairs. Just to do a lot of the things I used to do was getting really tough,” Yizek said.
He said he remembers some nights when the pain was so bad he had to go downstairs, sleep on a reclining chair and take lots of pain medication.
Finally, in September 1991, doctors found the benign tumour growing around his spinal cord. The resulting surgery left Yizek paralyzed from “the mid-belly down.”
Canada in the Paralympics
Other paralympic sports at this year’s Games are alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing and ice sledge hockey.
Canada has participated in every Paralympic Winter Games since the first one was held in 1976 in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden.
We have medalled in every Games, with the most medals for our country — 19 —coming in Innsbruck in 1988: six gold, six silver and seven bronze.
The Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games kick off at BC Place with the Opening Ceremony Friday evening when the 10-day Paralympic Torch Relay comes to a close after a 24-hour relay in downtown Vancouver.
On the plus side, Yizek said, “after that I never had a sore back.”
Before the tumour, Yizek had been a very active man, and losing the ability to curl after 20 years of playing the sport was a hard adjustment, to say nothing of all the other things he could no longer do. However, Yizek said he was usually able to see the brighter side of things.
“I was lucky enough to have a good wife and a good job, and the company said, ‘Get back as soon as you can,’” Yizek said.
After the surgery, he spent three months in the now-demolished General Hospital, and he said that was a bit of an eye-opener.
“There (were) people in there (who) were quadriplegics and the nurses had to feed them and comb their hair and brush their teeth and everything like that, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I’m not so bad off after all,’” he said. “It’s surprising what you do with your hands and your fingers; you do so much.”
When he got out of the hospital, Yizek had to have his house modified so he could get up and down the stairs in his chair while he and his family waited for their new single-level house to be built.
He went back to work for Hendrix Restaurant Equipment and Supplies. According to Yizek, he kept on going the same as before.
Bruno Yizek takes a shot during a practice last week at the Glencoe Club in southwest Calgary.
Photo: Elisabeth Heslop/Calgary Journal
“I do estimating and AutoCAD drafting,” he said. “It’s probably 95 per cent at the desk and maybe five per cent at the job site.”
The biggest difference now, he said, is that he has to keep an eye out for drywall screws at job sites so he doesn’t put a hole in his tires.
Meanwhile, Yizek looked for ways to be active, now that fastball, golf, dancing and regular curling were not options.
“I tried tennis, but you have to have a specialized chair and you have to be able to move quick and make all the fancy moves. It was frustrating ‘cause I like to win and I couldn’t win,” Yizek said.
What he really missed was curling. When a wheelchair curling league started up in Calgary in 2005, he was one of the first to sign up, Yizek said.
He said there aren’t really many differences between the sport he played for 20 years as a walking man and the one he plays now.
“Basically it is the same except there is no sweeping.... Other people say there’s a big difference but I don’t think there is ‘cause I did 20 years of able-bodied curling and all the strategy is pretty well the same,” he explained.
“The only problem is now if you miss your shot you can’t blame the sweepers,” he added with a laugh.
Yizek’s years of experience has served him well over the past five years. He was the only Alberta athlete among the 14 Canadian curlers originally chosen three years ago to try out for the national team.
Those 14 athletes were chiselled down to eight early last year and the final five-member team was announced in October 2009.
Wheelchair curling made its Paralympic debut in Turin in 2006, where Canada took home the gold, followed by Sweden and Great Britain with the silver and bronze respectively.
Yizek and the rest of the team — Darryl Neighbour, Ina Forrest, Sonja Gaudet and skip Jim Armstrong — will start their round robin play on Saturday morning against Great Britain, followed by an afternoon game against the United States.
The wheelchair curling semi-finals and the gold and bronze medal games will be played on Saturday, March 20, followed by the closing ceremonies of the 2010 Paralympic Games on March 21.