By Mike Rowbottom
When Michael McCreadie was 10 months old he caught polio, which meant he had to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
"When I look back on it now," McCreadie reflects, "it's one of the greatest gifts I've ever had. It has opened up so many experiences to me."
At the age of 63, McCreadie can reflect upon a long and extraordinary involvement in Paralympic sport which has taken him all over the world in the space of the last 35 years and given him the distinction of being one of only two British Paralympians ever to have won a medal at both summer and winter Games - a feat no British Olympian has yet managed.
But while McCreadie's official status may be "retired" - his days of working in the electronics business, and of running a greetings card shop in Glasgow are now behind him - his life is actually a blur of international travel and competition as he prepares for his seventh Paralympics. Yes, seventh.
Although the official team announcement is not due until January, McCreadie and the fellow Scots whose performances have earned Great Britain its place in the wheelchair curling at the Vancouver Winter Paralympics of March next year will be making the trip - and McCreadie will be skip.
Three years ago, McCreadie was part of another all-Scottish GB team which contested the inaugural Paralympic wheelchair curling event in Turin as favourites for gold, having won the world title in 2004 and 2005. Although McCreadie and his team-mates - skip Frank Duffy, Tom Killin, Angie Malone and Ken Dickson - fell just short, with a fractional misjudgement on their final delivery giving the title to Canada by 7-4, they succeeded in winning only the second silver medal Britain had won at the Paralympics, and the first medal since 1994.
This time around, not surprisingly, Team GB – which now comprises McCreadie, Killin, Malone, Jim Sellar and Aileen Neilson - has hugely ambitious plans at a venue with which the players have become familiar since it was opened in time to stage this year's World Championships, where Britain finished fifth as the host nation took gold.
Overcoming the Olympic and world champions on home ice will be something of an ask for any of the visiting teams, as McCreadie readily acknowledges.
"The Canadian team will have different personnel from the one which won in Turin," McCreadie says, "and I think it will be a better team than ever."
But McCreadie (pictured) didn’t get where he is today by meek acceptance of odds. His assessment continues...
"Playing at home is great, but as we know from playing the World Championships at Braehead [in Glasgow] the year before the Turin Games, it adds to the pressure. We took on that mantle in 2005 as defending champions, and although we finished the event unbeaten I call still remember the extra intensity of the experience.
"When you are world champions, every time you come to play a team that would be regarded as a 'minnow' they are desperate to beat you. If they only win one game, they want it to be against the world champions.
"Winning our first world title in Switzerland the year before was a great experience, but it couldn't match winning again on a home rink. Seeing the hall packed out with a Scottish crowd on that final Saturday was something else."
As well as hoping, in the nicest possible way, that Canada feel the strain of being favourites at home, McCreadie is also drawing comfort from the variable results that have been thrown up by this year's wheelchair curling tour matches – held in the autumn months as a prelude either to the World Championships or the Paralympics.
"We've had seven different winners in the seven most recent competitions," McCreadie points out. And Canada have also recently lost a friendly match at home to Japan. So who knows how things might turn out in Vancouver?”
For their part, Team GB - who are, in actual fact, all from the same Scottish club based at the Braehead rink - have produced a number of highly encouraging results, winning in Oslo and finishing runners-up in Berne and, last weekend, Ottawa.
McCreadie's career as a top-class international performer makes even Steven Redgrave appear a parvenu by comparison.
His first big international event was the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where he took part in the wheelchair basketball and swimming events.
Four years later he returned to the Commonwealth arena in New Zealand, where he added a third event, track racing, taking two silvers and a bronze.
But McCreadie, who also won two European basketball titles, had also settled into the Paralympic track by this time, having swum at the 1972 Games held in Heidelburg. At the 1976 Paralympics in Toronto and Montreal he took part in basketball, swimming, and bowls, winning two bronze medals in the latter event.
Thus the first part of his distinctive Summer-Winter double was established.
But McCreadie’s route to Turin 2006 was a long and winding one.
After competing at his third Paralympics in 1980, held in Arnhem, McCreadie turned to coaching basketball, and within four years he was in charge of the Great Britain team. In the space of a decade, that team earned world silver and bronze and European bronze as well as appearing at the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, finishing 11th, and the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics, where they ended two positions off the podium.
For his part, McCreadie was named Scottish and UK Coach of the Year in 1993, an award decided by his peers which still stands as one of his proudest achievements.
The opportunity to reinvent himself as an international performer came shortly after the event of wheelchair curling had been established in 2000. McCreadie took the new sport up in 2001, and a year later he was part of the British – Scottish – team travelling to Switzerland for the inaugural World Championships.
Shortly before their event, Rhona Martin and her team of British - Scottish - had sent mainland Britain into a frozen frenzy by winning the Winter Olympic gold at the Salt Lake Games, making front and back page news and provoking numerous leader articles predicting the imminent spread throughout Britain of a sport which had been, until then, a Scottish domain.
"Rhona and her team did an awful lot for British curling, particularly in Scotland," McCreadie recalls. "Like millions of others I watched in on TV late into the night. That last shot of hers may not have been a very difficult one, but it is really something to pull something like that off when you know that it is the difference between silver and gold.
"It raised the interest levels for us when we went to Switzerland – and it meant we had a lot to live up to!"
McCreadie and Co rose to the occasion, coming away from the first World Championships with a bronze medal.
Shortly before the Winter Olympics and Paralympics of 2006, when both sets of British players had gathered at the same training base in Aberfoyle, a series of matches were held between them, partly for fun, partly for pre-Games publicity.
While Olympic curling contains men's and women's event, Paralympic curling is mixed. So McCreadie's team played three ends against the men’s team, and three ends against the women's – acquitting themselves extremely well.
When wheelchair curlers release a shot, under what is known as the buddy-system, they must do so with a fellow team-mate holding onto the wheel of their chair to steady it. "The stone weighs 44lb," says McCreadie, "and if you weren't stabilised when you pushed it away you would simply move backwards yourself."
The stone is sped into action by means of a delivery stick. And, unlike their Olympic counterparts, Paralympians whose turn it is to slide the stone out of the hack do not have the benefit of team members industriously sweeping the ice ahead of their shot in order to warm the ice and hence divert or speed its passage.
"Nobody else can help you," McCreadie says. "You just have to be deadly accurate. Once the stone has gone, it's gone. It’s like playing a shot in golf – you have to beat the greens, and the bunkers, and the rough.
"Sweeping in front of a stone can take it 10-15 feet further along the ice. It can help it keep on a straight line, or it can take it round obstacles. It can turn a bad shot into a good shot.
"For that reason I think Paralympian curlers are more skilled than Olympians."
Are you listening, Rhona?
Constant international travel is wearing enough for the able-bodied, but for those having to deal with all the airport arrangements to do with wheelchairs – as Australia’s Paralympic marathon champion Kurt Fearnley recently found out to his cost – angst awaits.
Treatment of the kind encountered by Fearnley, who literally crawled through Brisbane airport in protest after being prevented from using his own wheelchair, is something McCreadie finds appalling.
"I admire the stand that Kurt and others have made. As people in wheelchairs, we just want equality and dignity," he says. "It's about education – and it’s about feeling worthy and valued."
McCreadie, who lives half-an-hour's drive away from the Braehead club at Lochwinnoch with his partner, Aileen Neilson, is full of praise for the resources with which the team are being provided by UK Sport and the Sport Scotland Institute of Sport at Stirling.
"We have had everything we need to prepare, from strength conditioning to advice on nutrition and psychology and assistance with travel and finance.
"The psychological work is all about assembling coping mechanisms for different situations. So, for instance, if you have played a bad shot you don't think about it as you take your next one – you are in the moment, and not thinking about outcome."
But you sense that, for all the psychological programming, McCreadie’s thoughts are straying towards an outcome in Vancouver. If guts, talent and determination have anything to do with it, it will be a good one.
Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.