Curling has played such a huge role in Heather Mowat’s life that she hopes she can continue with it and spread her love for the sport in the new year.
Back in 2006, Mowat was a member of the Brandon Police Service and a member of Liza Park’s competitive curling team. After a game one night in October, Mowat was on her way from her house to meet some friends when she hit an animal, which caused her car to roll over three times and sent her through a window and onto a neighbouring lawn.
The impact completely fractured Mowat’s T7 vertebra, caused brain damage and left her in a coma for seven weeks. She was so badly injured that she was flown to a hospital in Winnipeg and her family was informed she probably wouldn’t survive.
She did pull through, but things didn’t get much better after Mowat woke up. She was sent to a nursing home to recover, a facility where her mother had passed away. On the day Mowat was admitted, her grandmother, who also lived in the nursing home, passed away. The whole situation left Mowat feeling like her life was over.
"You paralyze someone, give them a head injury, throw them in this place and now I’m thinking ‘I’m here to die,’" she said. "They placed me here because it’s a terminal place and I’m here to die, so I didn’t eat. … They called my ex-boyfriend and he said ‘Heather, you’re not here to die. They put you here so they can prove you’re mentally OK and if you’re not going to eat, then you’re not mentally OK.’"
Those words inspired Mowat to start eating again and begin the long road to recovery. It took her two to three years to get back out on her own.
Although she hasn’t been able to walk again, she still has some memory issues and isn’t expected to work.
Mowat eventually found her way back on to the ice as well, rejoining the game she loves. Wheelchair curling was just starting to gain some recognition around the time of her accident and her father, Alex, told her she could start curling again. Mowat went to a clinic that taught people in a wheelchair how to curl, using a stick to push the rock down the ice with no sweeping.
Going from a competitive team that played in World Curling Tour events to wheelchair curling was a huge shock for Mowat — she got into an argument with an instructor about pushing a rock — but she credits the game with helping her recover and getting back to a more normal life.
"It was the one thing that was kind of the same, but it gives me something that I can work on to be better so I can get good at this," Mowat said. "It’s not that I can’t get good at this, it’s a sport, but it’s something outside the box that I can work on and get better at. To me, people are saying you played a really good game. You can get good at it and other people can see you’re good at it."
For the last few winters, the 36-year-old Mowat has curled twice a week — including in the Brandon Curling Club’s senior women’s league that plays on Thursday afternoons. She loves the social aspect of the senior women’s league and finds it easier to run errands after curling, as it gets her out of the house. It also decreases the number of times she has to switch from one wheelchair to another.
During the summer, Mowat volunteers at a nursing home, and she is also writing a novel.
While Mowat is enjoying curling again in Brandon, she won’t be seen at the clubs for much longer since she is planning to move to Europe with her husband, Ron Zielinski. She met Zielinski, who’s from Germany, online and the two made numerous cross-continental trips to visit each other before getting married.
The pair are planning to move to Germany so that Zielinski can be closer to his family.
Mowat is excited for the chance to live overseas, and she hopes she’ll be able to curl out of the Hamburg Curling Club, which is 35 kilometres from their house. If all goes well, Mowat hopes that may inspire other paraplegic people to take up the activity as well.
"I told him, I can’t go there if I can’t curl, but I’d certainly like to play in Hamburg," Mowat said. "I’m sure they have senior ladies and I can play in senior ladies. I’ve been to the Hamburg Curling Club. I’d definitely want to play there. … If I could curl there, I’d be very happy."