LILLEHAMMER, Norway – Coach Tom Violette admits he was unsure what he was getting himself into when he agreed to put together a mixed-gender curling team last April. Curling is a sport traditionally played with all-male or all-female teams, competing against the same gender.
There were a lot of unknowns involved with pairing two men and two women together, especially considering the athletes did not know each other and would have a very limited amount of time to train together and attempt to qualify for the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
“I thought it’d be quite an experiment,” said Violette, who himself is a former curling national champion and world medalist. “I didn’t know what to expect. Usually I work with a team for years.”
Violette’s experiment paid off in spades when his team of Luc Violette (Tom’s son), Cora Farrell, Ben Richardson and Cait Flannery won the mixed team silver medal Wednesday morning in Lillehammer.
The four teenagers (all 16, except the 17-year-old Richardson) were ecstatic with their medal and being able to bring home hardware for Team USA.
“It means a lot,” said Richardson, the team’s second. “All of us have always wanted to represent the U.S. and after winning (the U.S. Youth Olympic Team Trials in November) it was a great feeling to know we were going to be representing the U.S., and then to come here and get a medal for the U.S., it’s awesome.”
The team sailed through the round robin, winning six games and dropping one to Russia, and won both their quarterfinal and semifinal games to advance to the gold-medal game against Canada. Team USA’s neighbors to the north racked up an astounding five points in the first end, making it difficult for the Americans to gain any ground. After seven ends, the game ended at 10-4.
“It wasn’t quite our best performance,” the younger Violette, Luc, said. “Kind of just things didn’t go our way in the first end, but we did a good job battling back, and we just needed to get a little lucky and we didn’t.”
Considering curling teams can oftentimes take years to form their chemistry and find success, Team Violette’s medal was unexpected to say the least.
Luc and Richardson, who have played together on a junior men’s team in the Seattle area, came up with the idea to try out for the Winter Youth Olympic Games in early 2015. They began scouting for the two women who they hoped would join their quest to Lillehammer, and landed on Farrell, an Alaska native, and Flannery, a Minnesotan, who they had seen on the junior circuit.
“I knew the first time they stepped on the ice that it was going to be something special,” Tom said. “I thought I’d have to do a lot of teaching, but they all got it. And when I did teach, they were very coachable, and it just all came together in every way.”
The foursome began playing in June and entered in four tournaments leading up to the Youth Olympic Trials in November, which they won over five other U.S. mixed teams, including a team highlighted by the son and nephew of Olympic medalist curler Pete Fenson.
“Unfortunately there was a lot of conflicts between our junior teams and this, so we weren’t able to meet a whole lot before this,” Luc said. “But we practiced at (the USA Curling training center in Blaine, Minnesota) right before we came here, which was nice. And then we came here and got better throughout the week.”
|Silver medalists Cait Flannery, Ben Richardson, Cora Farrell and Luc Violette pose with their medals after the gold-medal game of the curling mixed team event at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympics at the Lillehammer Curling Hall on Feb. 17, 2016 in Lillehammer, Norway.
“It’s very different,” Flannery, the lead, said. “I think girls and boys react differently to different situations, so trying to balance that has been very interesting but a lot of fun.”
Though the two-man, two-woman format is unique to the Youth Olympic Games, mixed-gender curling is becoming more popular globally. Last June, mixed doubles (one man, one woman) was added to the Olympic program for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
The athletes in Lillehammer enjoyed competing with the opposite gender so much that they’re considering a possible foray into mixed doubles in the future, or even continuing to play with the same four-person team at a national championship tournament next year.
“I like it because we all bring a new skillset to the game,” Farrell, the third, said. “The boys are really great at throwing up weight shots, and we’re good at working together.”
The team’s silver medal marked the highest finish for the U.S. at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games. The U.S. has one medal in curling at the Olympics, the bronze won by Fenson’s team in 2006, and did not medal at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012.
Tom believes focusing on the junior-level athletes is they key to seeing Team USA return to the podium at the Olympics.
“I personally think it starts at this age, that’s where I think we’re missing the boat,” he said. “I think we need to start getting these kids together at a much younger age, right around 15 or 16. I think we need to look to the future now and start them as young as we can. I know Canada does it and I know a lot of other countries do as well.”
And Team Violette’s experience in Lillehammer motivated these four athletes to be among the ones to watch at a future Olympics.
“This makes me determined to ensure this will not be my only Olympic experience, that I will be sure to be back,” Farrell said.