It’s all about chemistry.
Brady Clark, Darren Lehto and Sean Beighton all share a passion for curling and have great rapport on and off the ice. After their fourth teammate decided to leave the squad in 2012, Team Brady Clark was in search of a curler who could be the right piece to the puzzle.
In stepped Philip Tilker in early December. When he joined the team, everything seemed to click. Two months later, Team Clark was celebrating as U.S. champions.
The nine other teams in the field at the 2013 USA Curling National Championships in Green Bay, Wis., might have overlooked Team Clark because it was a newly constructed group. However, when the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling get underway Nov. 10 in Fargo, N.D., Team Clark should be on everyone’s radar.
“They may not have expected a lot of us last year, to be perfectly honest,” said Clark, the team’s skip, who hails from Seattle. “We were a bit of an underdog going into last year’s nationals. I would not have called us the favorite.”
The scary thing for the teams taking on Team Clark is that Tilker and his new teammates are still learning each other’s games and constantly improving.
“We might be new to the U.S. curling scene at the top level, and we may have been underestimated at nationals, but we won’t be underestimated at trials and we need to be that much better prepared because no one is going to take us lightly,” said Tilker, who throws in second position.
After winning the U.S. championship in February, Team Clark competed in the world championships in Victoria, B.C., March 30-April 7. The team went 5-6 in the round-robin tournament and placed ninth out of 12 countries.
“Going into worlds, I think a lot of people had probably low expectations for our team,” Clark said. “And when I say low expectations, I had people saying, ‘Oh, you’ll probably only win three or four. I think our team has worked really hard. We saw where everyone was at, at the worlds last year, and it gave us a higher bar to say, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do here.’”
At worlds, Team Clark downed four of the top-six finishers but lost to two of the bottom teams.
Facing international competition was an eye-opening experience for all the team members. The guys became more confident and proved to themselves they can compete against the top teams in the world. From that point on, confidence grew. According to Tilker, the team members have no fear. They believe any team is beatable.
Team Clark also started communicating better on the ice. That resulted in better play with more shots becoming routine.
“Compared to how we played in March to now, we’re like a different team,” Tilker said. “A very different team.”
In preparation for the upcoming U.S. Olympic Team Trials, Team Clark is practicing as much as possible on its home ice at the Granite Curling Club in Seattle. The team is also hitting the gym hard to get more physically fit as well as working on the mental aspect of their game.
Team Clark has been competing in the World Curling Tour since September and is playing six bonspiels in seven weeks, qualifying in four of those events, prior to the Olympic Team Trials. The guys finished as runners-up in the Prestige Hotels & Resorts Curling Classic in Vernon, B.C., in early October.
The team members feel like they are curling their best right now with the U.S. Olympic Team Trials right around the corner.
“I think we just need to play at the level that we can,” said Lehto, who throws in the lead position. “We’ve done a good job of preparing ourselves. We have an aggressive schedule for competitions for preparing so far this year. … I’d like to think we’re as prepared or better prepared than any of the other teams.”
Team Clark played all four U.S. Olympic Team Trials-qualifying opponents — Team John Shuster, Team Pete Fenson, Team Tyler George and Team Heath McCormick — at nationals and went a perfect 7-0.
This will be the third U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Clark. The 36-year-old took home the bronze medal in 2006 and placed sixth in 2010. Clark is hoping his third time will be the charm. The team that wins the U.S. Olympic Team Trials will advance to a qualification event in December in Füssen, Germany. The U.S. men’s team that plays in Germany will be vying for one of two spots to compete in Sochi.
“It just makes you feel like, OK, I’ve been there and I haven’t achieved what I’ve wanted to do,” Clark said. “I’ve been close. I’ve been on some really good teams. But now it’s time to go out there and see if we can’t earn the right to go to Germany and try to qualify the U.S. I’d like to have that opportunity to go do that for the country.”
None of Clark’s teammates have competed in U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The team members don't think the lack of experience will be a disadvantage against the other trial-veteran teams.
“My experience, plus the experience of worlds has really shown the team that, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Clark said. “We’ve just got to play well and stick to what we know and see where the chips fall.”
“I really like our chances, I really do,” Lehto said.
Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wis., who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past seven seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.