“I’m into quotes,” says Aileen Neilson. “When I write birthday cards, I always write something inspirational.” The list is long, the skip of the British wheelchair curling team confirms, her mind brimming with an adage for each one of the twists and turns which may befall those in her celebratory circle.
However, her favourite quote has been kept for herself, encased in a key ring that rarely goes far. Embossed on a plaque in her bedroom in Lanarkshire so it is in prime view at the start of each day.
“Wish it, Dream it, Do it,” she says. “It’s my mantra.” One which has reinforced her capacity to believe, even in the improbable, no matter the odds or the doomsayers.
The 46-year-old will enter the fray at the Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang this weekend without fear of daring to imagine the grandest of possibilities. Her grandfather curled for Scotland. Her uncle, too. ”They were farmers so it was just a hobby. But I recall seeing my uncle at a European Championships and thinking that’s amazing. I never thought I’d be out there representing Great Britain at a third Paralympics. But my family really inspired me. I’m the youngest of three and that makes me competitive, I don’t like to lose.”
A trait honed when overcoming nature’s stumbling blocks with patience and not a little verve. Neilson was just two when doctors discovered a tumour in her spine after an inability to walk had raised alarm. The first of multiple surgeries repaired some of the damage. Ultimately, it was a patch, not a mend. When her legs deteriorated at the age of 16, crutches became necessary and fun evenings on the badminton or netball courts were brought to a close.
“But I still had the dream to be a primary school teacher and I accepted curling was going to be about watching my family do it.”
Neilson accepted the need for a wheelchair with admirable stoicism.
“For some people, becoming a wheelchair user must be a devastating blow. But for me, having struggled on elbow crutches for so long, it was a relief when I got one.
“In 2005, I had a DVT and I was on morphine. I thought: ‘if I fall and bump my head here, this could be serious’. I went in a chair and it was a relief. And I realised I could do so much more, especially in sport, in a chair.”
Seeing Angie Malone, part of her four-strong mixed team in Korea, win a world title at Braehead that year lit the bulb, and the fire. “I thought: ‘I wouldn’t mind being out on the ice with them.’ I might be a late starter but I hope I’ve caught up.”
Enough that she went to the next world championships, two years later, as part of the gang that took bronze. Enough that she has now been entrusted with leading the British rink on a quest to improve on the bronze medal they won in Sochi in 2014. They are part of a 17-strong British Paralympic squad that has sent athletes in four disciplines: skiing, snowboard, Nordic and curling, with ambitions to surpass the six medals rfom 2014.
That Channel 4 are giving the Games the full treatment will help, Neilson says.
”The success and profile that athletes achieved at London 2012 raised the bar. It showed how hard we work, as much as any able-bodied athlete. Then in Sochi [at the 2014 Winter Paralympics], Channel 4 gave us 80 hours on the telly. That’s unheard of. It helped that the general public could see whole Games, get the commentary, understand it – and get to know us. I got stopped in the supermarket afterwards from people who’d tuned in. And you hope it then translates into seeing more folk curling.”
All the better if – unlike their Olympic colleagues – the curlers come home from Pyeongchang with a medal. “We want gold,” she smiles. It’s been wished for and dreamt of. Now, the hard part.