The 2023 Western Blind Curling Championships got underway Wednesday night at the Charleswood Curling Club in Winnipeg. Seven teams from B.C., Alberta and Manitoba are competing.

PembinaValleyOnline Sports Director Clayton Dreger was the MC for the opening ceremony last night, and asked 2020 Manitoba, Canadian and World Junior Curling Champion Mackenzie Zacharias what her reaction was when Norm Lyons, the President of the Manitoba Blind Sports Association, asked her to throw the ceremonial first rock.

"It actually came together pretty quickly," she explained. "We were practicing for the Scotties at the Granite, and that's where these guys play as well. Norm saw me, and he's like, 'Hey, how's it going?' And you're catching up a little bit. Then he asked me, he's, so we have the Western Blind Curling Championships here in a couple of weeks, would you want to throw the opening ceremony first rock? Of course I can't say no, they're so great, so I was really honoured."

Zacharias has a relationship with the Manitoba blind curling community going back to 2019 when, as part of her University of Manitoba studies practicum, she was involved in blind curling as an observer, coach and participant. At the time, she was blindfolded to better understand the sport as blind curlers experience it. 

"It was part of a class on inclusive physical activity, and it was right after we got back from the World Championship, so we're fresh off that world win, and then when I stepped on the ice with these guys, they were absolutely thrilled I was there," reflected Zacharias. "It was so great getting to know them, and they were able to show me another side of the sport that I love that I've never experienced before. I learned how to throw with a stick. Not as easy as it looks, and then they blindfolded me, and got me to throw, it's pretty hard to hit the broom when you're blindfolded. I give them a lot of credit. What they do is pretty incredible."

After that experience, and new perspective on the sport of curling, Zacharias took away a number of things.

"This sport is for everyone, and it's so great to see everyone with every background, different cultures, different disabilities. There's wheelchair curling, deaf curling and blind curling, and it's just incredible how many people this sport really reaches," she shared. "It's a sport for life, and it's a sport for life in many different ways, and it's just super incredible to get to see these guys play. It's really cool if you ever have a chance to watch them. They don't all throw the same, so they all have different levels of visibility, so they all throw slightly different, either with the broom closer, or the broom farther away. Some of them are also completely blind, so then they need to be guided a bit more. It's really cool to watch."

Of course,  Mackenzie's opening ceremony first rock draw covered the button thanks to sweeping from Emily Zacharias and Lauren Lenentine. The Western Blind Curling Championships wrap up Saturday.

Organized Blind Curling first took place in 1972 as an awareness activity but soon grew into a competitive gathering of curlers. Alberta and Saskatchewan were joined by British Columbia and Manitoba in 1979. The Western Canadian Blind Curling Association, involving the four western provinces, was established in 1982, the same year that the event was hosted in Beausejour, Manitoba.

You can listen to our full interview with Mackenzie Zacharias, below.