A CURLING SUPERPOWER AND MEMORIES OF NAGANO

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Hockey, schmockey. What about curling? Let’s see. Not only are we a moguls behemoth and a hockey colossus. We rock at throwing rocks. Hardly news, of course. But these Winter Games are the first time both our men’s and women’s rinks have claimed gold at the same Olympics. Do I feel your eyes glazing over? Hey, it’s the roaring game!

But the women’s gold medal curling final, which almost got lost in the national euphoria over the thrilling victory by Canada’s never-say-die distaff hockey side, brought back some fond memories. It was Canada versus the tough Swedes, and the first crack at Olympic glory for one of this country’s greatest skips. Jennifer Jones had won so much at home, but often faltered internationally, and twice flubbed out at the country’s Olympic trials. This time, she was ready.

But it was no rock in the park, so to speak. Jones curled wonderfully, the rest of her rink not so much. In fact, without a key miss by the Swedes in the 9th end, and a measurement that gave Canada a point in the previous end by the width of a cat’s whisker, the result might have been silver, rather than gold.

The Jones girls were the first rink to go through an Olympics competition without losing a single match. Much was also made of the fact that this was also the first Olympic gold medal for Canada’s crack women curlers since the legendary Saskatchewan rink skipped by another great competitor, Sandra “The Curler” Schmirler.

That took place at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and I was there. It’s one of my favourite memories.

This was the first Winter Games to include curling (thank you, IOC), and the competition took place at a small, chilly venue in the charming, snowbound village of Karuizawa. There wasn’t much to recommend the host city. Rain, dreary streets, not a hint of winter. But when I got off the fast train from Nagano, I was immediately charmed. Little Karuizawa was beautiful, blanketed by great piles of snow everywhere, which lent a pristine silence to the air. There was no Olympic buzz, no hype, no noise. The Japanese knew nothing about the game. Matches took place before friends and family of the competitors, and that was about it. Those of us who made it out to the curling rink felt like stranded travellers, holed up in a snowbound inn.

But that made it more intimate than any other Olympic event I’ve ever covered. I happened to catch the Canadian team as it crossed a wooden pedestrian bridge on its way to the Olympic final. “Hey curlers!” I yelled. And I was rewarded with lovely warm smiles from the often serious Schmirler and her fun-loving third Jan Betker.

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The match, itself, was rather anti-climactic. Canada was in firm control from the beginning as they easily toasted their Danish opponents. When Schmirler’s last rock made a routine takeout to clinch the gold medal, the Canadians gathered together for an emotional group hug. There was almost no noise from the small spectators’ area. It was if they’d just won a bonspiel at their local curling rink.

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There was no holding back, however, when Schmirler, Betker, lead Marcia Gudereit and second Joan McCusker received their Olympic gold medal. Their eyes welled with tears. As they sang along to O Canada, Betker shed more tears, streaming down her face. And I headed back through the snowy streets, my own heart was glowing, too.

But my look back is also bittersweet. Two years later, Schmirler was dead, felled by a lethal, rare cancer at the age of 36.

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