Mixed doubles ‘like a first date’ for even experienced curlers
Teammates Val Sweeting (left) and Brad Gushue discuss strategy during the opening day of Olympic qualifiers at Stride Place in Portage la Prairie. (Aaron Wilgosh/The Graphic)
Ted Wyman - Winnipeg Sun
Brad Gushue compared his foray into the Olympic mixed doubles curling trials to a couple of events that might bring angst to a nervous teenager — a first date and a final exam for which he has barely studied.
The reigning world men’s curling champion was in an unusual position Tuesday as the qualifying tournament for the Olympics in South Korea got underway at Stride Place.
When he stepped on the ice with his partner Val Sweeting, it was just the third mixed doubles appearance of his life.
“I felt like last week I was cramming for an exam,” Gushue said of the week leading up to the Olympic trials. “I certainly don’t feel as ready as I’d like to be with an Olympic spot on the line. It’s hard to feel as prepared as I would like but we’re not the only team in that position.”
Mixed doubles will debut next month in PyeongChang and Canadian curlers, despite limited experience in the discipline, are eager to get in on the party.
Like many of the curlers in this event, Gushue took part in the four-player Olympic trials early last month in Ottawa. The curlers were so focused on that event, and had to deal with both the disappointment of not qualifying and the Christmas season after it ended, that they had little time to prepare for the mixed doubles trials.
While a few of the teams playing this week in Portage are mixed doubles specialists, the majority are high-end men’s and women’s curlers who are squeezing an Olympic qualifier into their already hectic schedules.
“It’s like a first date for a lot of teams out there,” Gushue said. “You’re not playing with this person all season, you don’t really know them. You’re at the beginning stages of being a team and you’re not going to go out there and be an ass.
“You’re going to be the nice guy and the nice girl and say the right things and put a smile on after someone misses. If these teams had been doing this for three years and playing, there would be a lot more intensity out there, a lot more swear words, a lot more banging brooms.”
The lack of prep time may have been a factor for Gushue and Sweeting, who got off to a rough start Tuesday, losing 6-4 to Chelsea Carey and Colin Hodgson before falling 7-6 to Brendan Bottcher and Dana Ferguson.
They weren’t the only big names to do so.
Mike McEwen lost the recent Olympic curling trials final to Kevin Koe, and his wife Dawn was an Olympic gold medallist as the lead for Jennifer Jones in 2014.
Despite their vast curling experience, they lost their first two games Tuesday, one of them in embarrassing fashion.
As Dawn was taking her last shot in the extra end, her team ran out of time. What looked like a sure victory turned into a 7-6 loss to Nancy Martin and Catlin Schneider.
“I knew we were tight but I didn’t think we were that tight,” said Mike McEwen, whose team did not have last rock in the extra end. “The official was counting it down but (Dawn) didn’t get to the T-line soon enough. It was probably a half-second or a second.
“They didn’t have a shot after we made that. They couldn’t score. We would have won so it kinda sucks. One of us had to see the clock and we just didn’t realize. There’s not many people to blame but looking at each other in the mirror.”
A couple of sheets over, Jones and Jill Officer, who have been teammates for two decades and won Olympic gold together, were playing against each other.
Officer and Reid Carruthers beat Jones and Mark Nichols 6-3.
It was the first time Jones and Officer played against each other in a game since 2002.
“It was certainly a little different,” Officer said. “Jen and I have curled together for 21 years or something ridiculous like that. It was fine and I was glad we played them early. It’s a little nerve-wracking. I guess it’s interesting for the fans but it’s different and it’s fun.”
Carey, the Calgary-based skip who lost the women’s Olympic trials final to Rachel Homan on Dec. 10, sees the mixed doubles event as therapeutic. After she and Hodgson won their first game Tuesday over Gushue and Sweeting, she said she is lucky to have an event like this so soon after a devastating loss. No team has had that opportunity before in Canada.
“It absolutely is grief,” she said of losing the final in Ottawa. “You go through the all the stages of grief just like anything else. It’s like the worst breakup ever.
“You have to take a mourning period. I didn’t go to the rink for five days. Nothing makes it go away but time. You have to let yourself feel it for a bit and then pick yourself up and dust off and move forward.”