With tensions running high over Crimea, a fledgling Russia team on Tuesday went head to head with defending champions the US in sledge hockey, beating them 2-1.
The Paralympic Games take place as Moscow and Washington lock horns over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula just across the Black Sea, and several members of both teams are military veterans.
The US have four, including two marines, Paul Schaus and Josh Sweeney, who became amputees after injuries received in Afghanistan.
There are five military athletes on the Russian team, including Vadim Selyukin, who lost both legs in the war in Chechnya, but went on to become one of the biggest sledge hockey advocates in Russia.
“It’s kind of the same, you are out there and there are good guys and bad, you are hitting and having fun, and have to fight through the adversary to be the best team,” Sweeney said when asked to compare the sport and military duty.
“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” he said of playing Russia.
Russian goalkeeper Vladimir Kamantsev, who lost his leg after an ambush in the second Chechen war, called sledge hockey a “second chance.”
“For me it’s another way to prove myself, especially while defending Russia’s frontiers,” he said after standing firm against aggressive attacks by the US team.
Russia are scheduled to play Norway in the semi-finals today. The US team are scheduled to face Canada.
Pressure was high for the Russia team, who were created solely to take part in the Sochi Paralympics, as they went against the US, with coach Sergei Samoilov protecting his squad from the media like a skittish mother hen.
Before the game he said the Sochi stadiums full of roaring fans are a bit too much to take for some of the players on the team, as young as 17.
Ice hockey has always been more than just a sport in Russia.
The stinging loss of the star-studded national ice hockey team to the US at the Olympics last month led to a non-stop stream of conspiracy theories. The coach was sacked.
Samoilov, who has painstakingly created the sledge-hockey team over four years of trial and error, refused to acknowledge the game as a rematch.
The two sports have nothing to do with one another, he said.
However, Russian sledge hockey association president Anatoly Yegorov said it is “of course, symbolic.”
Sledge hockey, also called sled hockey in the US, was invented in a Swedish rehabilitation center in the 1960s and has long become a fan favorite in several Western countries.
The sport is at least as physical and high-impact as regular ice hockey, with players poised on a single metal frame set on two blades. They then use two adapted hockey sticks to both move around the ice, as with ski poles, and pass the puck.
In Russia it remained obscure, with Samoilov taking two years of promoting and traveling to find enough players, let alone sponsors.
When the US team won gold in Vancouver, most of the members of the Russia team in Sochi had not even tried the sport yet.
To gather enough players for the national team, Samoilov posted an announcement on the Russian Paralympic Committee’s Web site, inviting applicants with no prior experience.
He also traveled around Russia’s regions speaking at events for people with disabilities and making video presentations.
“There wasn’t a great response,” he said. “Guys were very, very suspicious of this sport.”
At one point, Samoilov reached out to the US for help.
“Americans came and we had a master class,” he said. “I never even knew the details of tuning the sleds or the tips of the hockey sticks. But as they say, don’t feed us fish, instead teach us how to fish.”
With so many paralympic programs for veterans in the US, Samoilov said that Russia could do more for servicepeople who became disabled by serving their country.
“The country must be grateful that they went to the end,” he said.