Team USA wheelchair curler Batoyun “Oyuna” Uranchimeg clearly remembers the day six years ago when a friend invited her to lunch … and unexpectedly changed her life forever. Again.
“One day, (friend Kyle Bauman) said, ‘Oh, you should come down — it’s a surprise,'” recalls Uranchimeg, who was born in Mongolia but has lived in the U.S. since 2000. “He actually didn’t say where we were going – just come with me to this place and [I thought], ‘Okay, so at least I’ll get free food.'”
Bauman drove Uranchimeg, an administrative assistant in the communication and journalism department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., to the Four Seasons Curling Club in nearby Blaine. The U.S. Wheelchair Curling Team was holding a training camp there, and he thought she might be interested in curling as a fun activity.
“I don’t think we even ate lunch,” Bauman recently told the Star Tribune. “As soon as she wheeled in the door, that was it. They got her on the ice that day.”
Six years later, the 48-year-old Uranchimeg is making her Games debut as part of a U.S. team going for its first Paralympics medal in wheelchair curling and its second overall in a major international competition since capturing bronze at the 2008 World Wheelchair Curling Championships.
MORE PARALYMPIC COVERAGE: Paralympic officials didn’t want these snowboarders to compete. They finished on the podium anyway
It’s a whole new chapter in Uranchimeg’s life, a life that had already taken a screaming left-hand turn 22 years ago. She was visiting Minnesota when she was in a horrific single-car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Just 27 at the time – and with her 6-year-old son still in Mongolia – Uranchimeg made the choice to stay in the United States to recover.
Her journey post-accident started on a dark note, without family or friends, as they were unable to secure travel visas. She faced deep depression, calling the experience “terrifying.”
“First, I thought about if I even wanted to live,” Uranchimeg told SELF, recalling the early days after her accident. “Once I decided that I did, I was determined to thrive and start building a life based on what I had, not on the life that could have been.”
MORE PARALYMPICS COVERAGE: Meet the 15 women representing Team USA at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games
In the Twin Cities, Uranchimeg found the support to create a new life. She became a U.S. citizen in 2008, and her son was able to join her that same year. About two years later, Uranchimeg’s niece, whom she adopted and is about the same age as her son, joined the family in Minnesota.
Adaptive sports were part of Uranchimeg’s rehabilitation, including a season on the “Rolling Timberwolves” where she played wheelchair basketball. She also tried adaptive sailing and an adaptive circus program. But it was the afternoon at the curling club that planted the seed for a dream to become a professional athlete.
“When I came back home, I started googling and YouTubing about all this wheelchair curling,” recalls Uranchimeg in an appearance on “Rocks Across the Pond” podcast. “I watched nonstop [over the weekend] all these curling matches from Sochi Games. It was kind of fancy to see people that I just met, they are already professional athletes. …So that’s kind of how I started dreaming little bit.”
She was named to the national curling team in 2018 and competed in her first international event in April 2021. In October, the team placed fourth at the 2021 World Championships, which secured their spot at the Beijing Paralympic Games.
The U.S. is one of five teams to have qualified for all five Paralympic wheelchair curling competitions, however, they’ve advanced to the playoff round just once in four previous appearances. In 2010, the U.S. lost its semifinal matchup vs. South Korea 7-5, then lost the bronze medal game to Sweden by the identical score.
Team Canada arrives in China as the most successful Paralympic curling nation after having won three straight gold medals – in Torino in 2006, Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014 – before winning bronze in PyeongChang four years ago. China is the defending gold medalist as well as the reigning world champion, claiming the gold on home ice at the “Ice Cube” at the 2021 World Wheelchair Curling Championships.
The mixed gender curling tournament features 11 teams this year after Russia’s team was barred from competing on March 3. Estonia and Latvia are making their Paralympics debut in wheelchair curling.
Play kicked off Saturday with the round-robin portion of the tournament, with each team playing each other once (and taking a bye for games that would have been vs. Russian Paralympic Committee athletes). The top four teams will advance to the knockout portion of the tournament, with the winner of each semifinal facing off for the gold medal on Saturday, March 12, while the losers will play for bronze.
The NBC Paralympics Research Team contributed to this report.