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Despite all his battles, Tom Coulterman takes on new challenges

Nigerian curlers, many more have benefitted from wisdom of longtime coach

For Tom Coulterman, taking on some of life’s toughest challenges has never been something he’s backed down from. He fought pancreatic cancer in 2006, had a kidney removed in 2016 along with surgery to remove melanoma cancer that same year.

So when the prospect of coaching the Algoma University men’s curling team came up and two of his top prospects were Nigerian-born students who had never stepped foot on the ice before, Coulterman opened his arms wide and welcomed the challenge.

That’s a dramatic change from the Brad Jacobs rink that he coached to a gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but for Coulterman, it was just another opportunity to lend his expertise to the sport locally.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Coulterman, of the Algoma U squad that included leads Al-Amin Abubakar and Kennedy Uwaechi, both from Nigeria. “I enjoyed it. You go into something like that with no expectations and I took five of them away to the provincials and we had a good time as far as seeing what it’s all about.”

And for Coulterman, a good time is just that. It wasn’t so much about winning at the provincials as he knew his rink was outclassed, but rather an opportunity to expose his players to some of the best university talent in the province.

“We got killed which is fine,” Coulterman said rather candidly. “We won a few ends and in a couple of games we started out with the lead, but after that, the other teams just killed us.

“They just had way too much experience.”

Now, with a full year under his belt at the university level, Coulterman is turning his focus to the recruiting phase of university sports. He watched the NOSSA playdowns this season and will attend the upcoming Under-18 Northern Ontario championships in the Sault with the hopes of luring some talented, battle-tested athletes to Algoma U.

And if he can do that, there’s every reason to believe that Coulterman can put the Thunderbirds curling program on the proverbial map. After all, his resume is long and impressive, dating back to 1969 when he first took up the sport as a player at the urging of his wife, Mary, whom he’s been married to for nearly 51 years.

He started coaching in 1974 and for years guided the White Pines Collegiate curling team to stardom. He also coached numerous junior-aged curling teams and once started an elementary league in the 1980s.

He got away from coaching in 1999 at which point he started a program called Learn to Curl for adults before eventually returning to coaching.

He says his most memorable moment was the 2014 Olympics, particularly because it represented the pinnacle of curling success as Team Jacobs, competing as Team Canada, won the gold medal.

“I always call it a dream-come-true,” Coulterman said. “You dream about it (Olympics), but you never think it’s really going to happen. Just the chance to walk into the Olympic Stadium with Team Canada was a phenomenal experience.

“We won the gold medal which was fantastic. However, coaches never get medals at the Olympics so that was a little disappointing for me but I felt super for the guys.”

The Olympic gold medal came nearly eight years after Coulterman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a diagnosis that put his mortality to the test. But in typical Coulterman fashion, he courageously fought that off, seldom complaining and battling the entire time with the kind of positive attitude that is required to stave off such a horrible disease.

“I’ve always been quite positive about things,” Coulterman said. “I had a positive attitude that things were going to be OK coming out of it.

“I had good doctors working with me and I had to go to London for an operation and I trusted them and I trusted and believed in the oncologist here in the Sault during the post-operation phase. I really felt I was going to be OK and I didn’t let myself get down in the mouth or discouraged.”

Today, even at 74, he still goes to the gym and still works out and says he’s in the best shape he’s been in since his university days.

As a coach, his soft voice and cerebral approach often has a calming influence on his players. His ability to convey information to in a sport that requires so much concentration has always been considered a huge asset. He has coached hundreds of players over the years, but says his second most memorable experience was coaching his daughter Tara’s foursome at the junior nationals twice as Northern Ontario. That foursome included Tara, who served as skip, vice Melody Farkas, second Amy Uhryn and lead Jennifer Smith.

“I know I mentioned the Olympics as being at the top of my list as far as experiences, but probably my second would be coaching my daughter at the junior nationals twice,” he said. “They were the very first-ever Northern Ontario team in 1991 and I think they came fifth that year but then won the silver medal the following year.”

He also said watching his former player Jennifer Ferris (formerly Jennifer Bolton) go onto a career in curling, gives him great satisfaction. Ferris is currently the managing director of the Ontario Curling Council and writes coaching manuals and develops courses for Curling Canada.

For Tom Coulterman, time has never been as important to him as it is today. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, especially one that can be as daunting as pancreatic cancer, you tend to focus more on your loved ones and the time you have left. He takes solace in the fact his checkups have been encouraging and until he hears differently, he will continue to do what he can for the sport he loves.

“I go in every six months for checkups and so far everything’s been great,” he said. “It sure puts a different perspective on things. I guess after the pancreatic cancer, you sort of look back and your priorities change and that’s why I wasn’t doing a lot of coaching for a while until Brad and the guys asked me to in 2009.”

And fortunately for the Sault Ste. Marie curling community, that request catapulted him back into the curling spotlight and back into the lives of so many young men and women.