COEUR d’ALENE — The smile on Natalia Kamolinkova's face was almost as big as her home country of Russia when she slid into the seat of the ice hockey sled.
"I’m trying ice hockey for the first time," she said Wednesday. "I never played hockey without the wheelchair. I’ve been a wheelchair user for six years and I’ve never tried ice hockey before.
"It’s like a new version of freedom."
She felt that way earlier in the week when she and other Russian delegates of the Open World program took to the waters of Medical Lake for some paddle sports. Kamolinkova said that sitting in a wheelchair doesn’t allow for a whole lot of freedom or even different body positions.
"That’s why I like so much kayaking," she said. "We went rock climbing yesterday and I think that ice hockey will be so very exciting for me."
The St. Petersburg 30-year-old strapped on a helmet and snapped a selfie before she got into the rink of the Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d'Alene.
"I’m so excited to be here, and building something into my city," Kamolinkova said. "I’m into diving. I have been doing diving for a year, and I hope that I can introduce this experience into my diving club and make something like this with diving."
Kamolinkova and her Open World colleagues are visiting various locations in the Inland Northwest this week to observe and experience disability-friendly techniques they can apply to athletics in their hometowns. She and one other delegate represent athletes with disabilities while the others are trainers and professionals looking for solutions to make activities more inclusive back home.
"You’ve got two levels, right? One is the diplomatic, just that sports is an equalizer for everybody of all nations," said retired nurse and community volunteer Robin Redman, who gave a quick lesson on variations in Nordic skiing.
"And then second, Russia already has a very well-developed parasport, but that’s at the national level with their national teams," she said. "What they don’t have is the community-based integration. But neither do we very well. So, it's a learning process for all of us to know how to utilize our resources and capture the volunteerism and what we do best, which is helping each other achieve our best."
The delegates are being hosted by the Friendship Force Club of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington. Friendship Force International is a nonprofit that was started by President Jimmy Carter to help people meet friends from all over the world.
"His whole idea was that when you meet people and spend time with people, it’s pretty hard to hate them," said Chris Larson, president-elect of the local Friendship Force Club. "You get to understand how they function and what they’re thinking. I think Open World is doing the same thing but more focused. Our Open World is focused on disabled athletes. How can you take anything away from this except a positive experience?"
Open World is administered by the Open World Leadership Center, a government organization that brings emerging and established Russian, Ukrainian and other Eurasian leaders to the U.S. for professional programming in multiple areas of focus. Open World is an exchange program that has enabled more than 27,000 current and future leaders from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan to meaningfully engage and interact with members of Congress, Congressional staff and thousands of other Americans, many of whom are the delegates’ direct professional counterparts.
New Vision High School student Bradly Baumgardner was one of a handful of local students who volunteered to assist the honored guests during their visit to the ice rink.
"I think it’s awesome," he said of the program. "I think it's a great idea. We should do it more often, but except we go to Russia, we try out their things as they try out our things."
He said the inclusion aspect is also something he appreciates.
"People with disabilities can still do the fun things that people without disabilities can do, and they can do it together," he said.
Info: www.thefriendshipforce.org or www.openworld.gov