When Olympic dreams are on the line, competition becomes fierce.
That should be the case when five evenly matched men’s and four evenly matched women’s teams take to the ice for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling Nov. 10-17 at the Scheels Arena in Fargo, N.D.
The United States has already qualified a women’s team for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, based on results at the past two World Women’s Curling Championships, so the winner in Fargo will be nominated for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team.
The winning U.S. men’s team has a continued battle to get to Sochi. The U.S. men fell just short of claiming one of the first eight early qualifying spots for the Winter Games, so the winner in Fargo will move on to the Olympic Qualification Event Dec. 11-15 in Füssen, Germany, where the final two Olympic spots will be determined.
The men’s field will consist of Team Brady Clark, Team Pete Fenson, Team Tyler George, Team Heath McCormick and Team John Shuster. The women’s squads competing will be Team Erika Brown, Team Courtney George, Team Cassie Potter and Team Allison Pottinger.
This year’s 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling will run with a different format than past years. Both the men and the women will play in a double round-robin style with the top two teams advancing to a playoff where a best-of-three series will determine the winner.
“I think it’s a great format,” U.S. Olympian Erika Brown said. “Typically, it’s been sort of a single round-robin and then playoffs. But we’ll have a best two-out-of-three at the end, and I think it’s a great idea.”
“It should be interesting,” said John Shuster, skip of the 2010 U.S. Olympic men’s team. “I’ve never played in a competition where you do like a double round-robin.”
Can anyone stop curling’s All-Star team?
|Erika Brown (center) throws a stone as Jessica Schultz (right) and Ann Swisshelm (left) sweep during the play-off match between USA and Canada at the World Women's Curling Championship on March 23, 2013 in Riga, Latvia.
Team Erika Brown has been called an All-Star team. In addition to Brown, who competed in curling as an Olympic demonstration sport in 1988 and then as an official Olympic sport in 1998, teammates Debbie McCormick, Ann Swisshelm and Jessica Schultz all have Olympic experience as well.
McCormick has competed in three Olympic Winter Games and won eight U.S. championships. Swisshelm is a 2002 Olympian and five-time U.S. champion. Meanwhile, Schultz is a 2006 Olympian and three-time national champion.
“We’ve done a ton of traveling, participated in a lot of competitions and made a huge commitment to the sport,” Brown said earlier this year. “I think we’ve all made each other better and this is an opportunity for our team, or really any team that gets that spot at the Trials, to prove that U.S. curling is right up there on the world stage.”
That doesn’t mean Team Brown has an easy path to Sochi, though.
Allison Pottinger led her team to the 2012 U.S. title and, along with two of her current teammates, won the previous Olympic Trials and went on to represent the United States in Vancouver in 2010.
“I expect everybody to be more than 100 percent prepared, like a 110 percent prepared basically, because everybody’s known for several months if not a year that this is the week,” said Pottinger, who has won a record 10 U.S. curling titles. “Everyone’s tailored their schedule, tailored their training for this one week. I kind of expect it to be a really good week with a lot of good games.”
Team Brown has the hot hand, having won nationals in February and followed that up with a fourth-place finish at the world championships the next month. Brown knows her team is going to be ready for a shot at the Winter Games.
“We had a really great run at the world championships last March and we tried to take that momentum into this season,” Brown said. “We entered some really great competitions. This fall we’ve played in a lot of great spiels. … While we haven’t had as much success this year on tour as we had last year, we’ve played a lot of games together.”
Pottinger believes the team that wins the U.S. Olympic Trials will be the one that executes shots, reads the ice well and has strong mental toughness.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen that week because there’s more than just curling going on that week,” Pottinger said. “There's all the mental stuff that happens with just one week, along with the pressure of the Olympic Trials."
Since two teams could play as many as five times — twice in the round-robin portion and up to three times in the finals — curling consistently all week will be key. Catching a few breaks will help, too.
“The team that wins is going to pull out some really close games and probably going to win on a couple extra ends and manage to squeak out some victories,” Brown said.
A who’s who of U.S. men’s curling
|Pete Fenson, Shawn Rojeski, Joe Polo, John Shuster and Scott Baird receive the men's curling bronze medal at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 25, 2006.
In 2006, Pete Fenson’s team won the United States’ first (and only) Olympic medal in curling, which was a bronze medal. Then John Shuster, who was also on that 2006 team, split away and skipped his own team to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Both Olympians are back skipping teams in 2014, and they will have to compete against defending U.S. champs Team Brady Clark and 2012 U.S. champs Team Heath McCormick.
Heading into U.S. Olympic Trials, any team could come out on top. All five teams are playing well on the World Curling Tour and Shuster doesn’t believe there are any favorites.
“You look at our world rankings and they’re all really close to each other,” Shuster said. “Last year we had a tight nationals where it was the top five teams that finished at nationals [are at all Trials]. It’s going to be a battle.”
Team Clark might come into U.S. Olympic Trials feeling like it has a slight advantage against the competition. At nationals in February, Team Clark went 7-0 against the other four teams in the Trials field.
“They may not have expected a lot of us last year, to be perfectly honest,” said Clark, who went on to lead his team to a ninth-place finish at the world championships. “We were a bit of an underdog going into last year’s nationals. I would not have called us the favorite.”
Shuster said he isn’t worried about momentum, positive or negative, carrying over from the previous U.S. championships, since the event was nine months ago.
At this point in the season, all five teams know each other pretty well. So, what’s it going to come down to for a team to win?
“For us, if we execute and play the strategy that we play and don’t give any games away, I like our chances of winning,” Shuster said. “I’m sure every team is very similar. We’re all pretty equal as far as talent and that kind of stuff.”
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.