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Culture

Germans Hopeful As Paralympics Start in Turin

The Winter Paralympics for athletes with disabilities start in Turin on Friday and 37 Germans have traveled to Italy to participate in the event. The country's sledge ice hockey team is among the medal hopefuls.

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German Paralympics are hoping to bring home some of these

Frankfurt's airport recently was aglow with bright orange and green jackets that said "Team Germany 2006" on the back. While German athletes competing in the Turin Winter Olympics have long returned home, the country's Paralympics team -- who wear the same colorful outfits -- made their way to Turin to compete for medals until March 19.

Among them is Gerd Bleidorn. The 47-year-old has lost both legs, but that has not affected his passion for sports.

"I think it's just like with other athletes: Olympics or Paralympics are the highest goal anyone in sports can have," he said. "It's more important than world or European championships."

Bleidorn is on of 14 players in Germany's national sled hockey team.

Paralympics Eishockey Japan - Estland

Estonian and Japanese sled hockey players during the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City

"It's just like ice hockey, except one level lower," Bleidorn said, adding that players sit on sleds that are about one meter (three feet) long. Players use two sticks that have ice picks attached to one end to help maneuver the sled. Instead of playing three sets of 20 minutes, sled ice hockey consists of three sets of 15 minutes."

"Everything else is just like in regular ice hockey," said Bleidorn, who won the European championships with his team last year.

Fellow player Sven Stumpe used to play handball before he lost his legs. He first tried basketball, but soon got bored with it and finally discovered his passion for sled hockey.

"In the beginning, it was hard even to just remain on the sled and not capsize," Stumpe said.

It didn't take long for him to get comfortable and he became a forward for the national team just 18 months after he took up the game.

Hoping to generate interest

National coach Michael Gursinsky said he hopes the Paralympics, which will get more TV coverage in Germany this year than in the past, will help encourage others to join.

"We have a league in Germany and there is quite a bit of interest," he said. "But I expect the Paralympics to boost new registrations in clubs."

Gursinsky added that his team has a good chance to fare well in Turin.

Deutsche Teammitglieder feiern bei der Abschlusszeremonie in Turin

Bleidorn and his team colleagues hope to celebrate just like the German Olympics team a few weeks ago

"If we survive the group stage and play well, everything is possible," he said. "We could get a medal. Gold would be dreamy, but we'd also be happy with bronze."

Should the team win a medal, it would probably be the last one for Bleidorn. He's one of the older players on the team and wants to give his best to come home with a medal. But winning isn't everything, he said.

"The opening and closing ceremonies will be big events," he said. "But of course I'd be happy to get on the winner's rostrum and have someone hang a medal around my neck."

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