Waiting to go through security at Logan Airport last week, Richard Mahoney ducked under the rope to pose for a photograph with David Palmer.
Mahoney approached the Marlborough native, who was seated in his wheelchair and outfitted in Team USA regalia while he enjoyed a preflight meal. Along with his coach, Anthony Colacchio, and teammate Meghan Lino, both of East Falmouth, Palmer is representing the US Paralympic wheelchair curling team this week in Russia at the Sochi Winter Games.
“I had no idea who he was. I saw Team USA on his back and people taking pictures so I was like, ‘Oh right on, let me go hop in there,’ ” said Mahoney, a student at the White Mountain School in Bethlehem, N.H., who was traveling to Paris for a class trip.
“I’m pretty happy they are representing this country and I like this country a lot, so hopefully they do it well.”
Departing for his first Paralympic Games, the 53-year-old Palmer was thrilled with Mahoney’s enthusiasm and all the support he received at Logan. He was also surprised at the airport by his sister’s family, who arrived ahead of him with balloons and posters in his honor.
Palmer’s nerves might have been a bit frayed, but encountering curious well-wishers at airports is nothing new for the 1979 Marlborough High graduate.
“Usually we’re carrying our sticks and they don’t quite understand,” he said. “Some people don’t even know what curling is and then you’ll get, ‘Oh, I love curling; I watch it all the time in the Olympics’ and stuff like that.
“In the past the Paralympics haven’t been televised and now they are doing live streaming, so it’s exciting.”
Five years ago, Palmer was just a spectator. Now he is the vice skip for the US team.
He first tried the sport at the Cape Cod Curling Club in Falmouth, which hosted a fund-raiser for CAPEable Adventures, his friend Craig Bautz’s nonprofit organization that provides adaptive sports opportunities for physically impaired people.
“I knew of it from watching it on TV in the Olympics,” Palmer said of the sport. “I didn’t know about wheelchair curling. I was intrigued . . . I liked it a lot but never had a chance to try it.”
Like Olympic curling, the Paralympic version involves two teams of four players sliding granite “stones” toward a bull’s-eye painted on a sheet of ice. Unlike their able-body counterparts, Paralympians have mixed-gender teams and no sweepers to furiously brush the ice with a broom to guide the stone along its icy path. They also have the option to use a delivery stick if they cannot bend down to push the stone.
“I love the strategy part of it, the finesse of the game,” Palmer said. “It takes quite a bit of skill. You watch the elite athletes on TV and they make it look easy, and when you come out and try it, it’s difficult. You throw a 44-pound stone 160 feet down the ice, and hit a target you need to hit, or draw into a spot you need to go to; it’s rewarding.”
Lino, who was introduced to the sport shortly after Palmer, is also competing in her first Paralympic Games.
“You could see he had a little more experience and it showed,” she said.
“As I got better, I caught up with him. It’s awesome’’ to be a member of Team USA, she said. “I could have never imagined it in my wildest dreams.”
Palmer might be relatively new to curling, but he has competed in athletics his entire life. A former ice hockey player, he was involved in a motorcycle accident in 1993 that paralyzed him from the chest down. Within eight months he was playing adaptive sports, trying everything from downhill skiing to waterskiing.
“I was going through a lot,” he said. “Right away I got into it. It made you feel whole again.”
He even played sled hockey, in which players sit in an apparatus equipped with a skate runner and propel themselves using two sticks with ice picks on one end and hockey blades on the other. He considered trying out for the US Paralympic sled hockey team 15 years ago, but could not because he was a stay-at-home dad raising three adopted children at the time.
Twelve years ago, his family moved from Vermont to Mashpee, where Palmer works for the public school system as a recess monitor and administrative clerk.
After first learning the sport of curling, Palmer worked closely with his coach, Colacchio, for roughly two years before earning a spot on the national team.
Colacchio told him, “You have a chance of going to the Paralympics,” Palmer said. “I didn’t believe him at the time. I didn’t think it was possible.’’ People at the Cape Cod Curling Club “took me in there and showed me the game and I just excelled at it.”
Now Palmer trains five days a week and travels around the country, and the world, for curling tournaments.
“He brings a lot to the team; he’s playing really great,” said Colacchio.
Last year, Team USA finished fourth behind China at the World Wheelchair Championships, also held in Sochi. “This year we are very hopeful to go all the way and be on that podium.”
Entering Tuesday’s match against winless Finland, however, Palmer and his teammates were 1-4 overall, after losses to Canada (7-2) and Russia (6-5) on Monday. They were in need of a win against the Finns at the Ice Cube Curling Center to have any hope of advancing out of pool play.Justin Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.