The ninth edition of the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship begins on Saturday in Karlstad, Sweden, and it will be the first time in history the event has Olympic implications.
With mixed doubles having been added to the Olympic curling program for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, the top 12 finishers at the next two world championships will receive qualification points.
There will be no Olympic qualification event for mixed doubles. Rather, the seven teams with the most points accumulated over the next two years and the host nation, South Korea, will qualify for the discipline’s Olympic debut.
Representing the United States at the world championships this year will be the Minnesota duo of Joe Polo and Tabitha Peterson, who earned their spot by winning the U.S. World Mixed Doubles Team Trials in February.
Polo, 33, won a bronze medal at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games in men’s curling and is a five-time national champion, while Peterson, 26, won a women’s national title in 2012 and has starred on NBCSN’s “Curling Night in America” program.
Both finished second in their respective U.S. Olympic Team Trials competitions in 2013, just missing out on qualifying for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
The two have known each other for a number of years because of the tight-knit curling community, but they’ve only played together twice.
“We just started this year,” Peterson said, speaking with Polo by her side. “Since it’s now an Olympic discipline for 2018, we decided it might not be a bad idea to try it out this year. The high-performance program put us together at first … and then we got stuck together.”
Polo quickly chimed in, failing to hold back his laughter: “You make it sound like we had to play together.”
Whereas only 12 countries are represented at the traditional men’s and women’s world championships, there will be 42 nations competing at the mixed doubles event. The nations will be split into six groups for round-robin play, with the top 16 teams advancing to the playoff rounds.
Most of the teams are new to the international stage, having just joined the discipline since it was announced as a part of the Olympic program last June.
“There’s a lot of names on the list that we’ve never seen before,” Polo said. “It’s tough to say how good they’re going to be. We’ve never seen these people, never run into them on tour or at the men’s or women’s world championships, so it’s tough to gauge how good they’re going to be and the style they’re going to play.”
But, on the other hand, the immense growth of mixed doubles can also lead to new friendships.
“It’s a very social sport,” Peterson said. “You are enemies on the ice, but then you go off and have a beer with the team you just played. That doesn’t happen in a lot of sports.”
Mixed doubles competition is played on the same sheets of ice as traditional curling, but teams have six stones each rather than eight, and one stone from each team is prepositioned before each end of play begins.
Sweeping can be done by both team members, with one player delivering the first and last stones and the other playing the second, third and fourth stones. Each team receives 22 minutes of thinking time, and games are fixed at eight ends, compared to the 38 minutes of thinking time and 10 ends for traditional curling.
“It’s kind of new still, and we’re learning the strategy of the game and everything,” Peterson said. “Men’s curling, too, is different than women’s curling a little bit because they can throw more weight. So Joe sees some shots I don’t see.”
With a different rock-to-curler ratio in mixed doubles, it means athletes must always be moving and strategizing, and have less time to think tactically.
“Things escalate quickly,” Polo said. “There’s so many rocks in play and the ends are short because there’s only six rocks instead of the eight, so things kind of sneak up on you.”
Newly introduced this season to mixed doubles is the power play, during which the opening rocks are placed on the side rather than the center of the ice sheet. Each team is allowed to call one per game, which can shift the focus from the middle of the ice and flip the momentum instantly.
Polo and Peterson believe the key to success at the world championships will be how well curlers mesh with their partners, and the American duo appears to balance each other out just fine.
“I like playing with Joe because he’s laid back,” Peterson said. “I like the way he holds himself out on the ice. He’s very calm, and that calms me. And he’s funny … funny looking.”
Polo quipped right in: “Tabitha likes to joke around as you can see.”
Polo and Peterson will start off world championship play in Group E, facing Belarus, Denmark, Israel, Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain. Fans interested in following the event can watch on the World Curling Federation’s YouTube channel, YouTube.com/WorldCurlingTV.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.