How an invitation to ‘lunch’ launched wheelchair curler Oyuna Uranchimeg’s Paralympic career

Oyuna Uranchimeg (R), David Samsa (C) and Stephen Emt (L) of team United States compete against team China during the semi finals of 2021 World Wheelchair Curling Championships.
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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. 

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Visually impaired skier Millie Knight puts crashes, concussions in rearview mirror to win Paralympic bronze

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.