Pete Fenson had dreamed this a thousand times, in those after-school curling matches in Bemidji, Minnesota: one shot, one chance, one moment to make himself an Olympic hero.
Now, on a February night in northern Italy, it was actually happening. As if on cue, the American skip — or captain — was about to throw the last rock in a bronze-medal match against Great Britain at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games.
Miss by a bristle and the U.S. curling teams would leave another Winter Games empty handed; hit a bull’s-eye and five down-home guys from Minnesota would become the sport’s newest rock stars.
“Peter’s a pretty stone-cold guy,” said teammate Joe Polo. “He never really seemed to get nervous. But I did notice that he took an extra breath, he took an extra second.
“We were well aware there had been no American medals in curling.”
Fenson, proud owner of Dave’s Pizza in Bemidji, never doubted himself. In the Pinerolo Palaghiaccio, a cozy, 2,000-seat converted ice rink about 25 miles from Torino, he sent his last stone sliding down the sheet ice. When it was nearly halfway to its destination, Polo flinched.
“I was a little worried,” he said.
But when the stone came to a gentle stop on the bull’s-eye, clinching an 8-6 win, Team USA curlers finally were podium-bound.
“We knew we had it in us to go out and get a medal,” Fenson said.
Because of the U.S. team’s breakthrough performance and extensive TV coverage of their Olympic run, American curling experienced a post-Torino boomlet. New fans and players came to the game. Clubs started popping up in Sunbelt states. Extra rocks had to shipped from Scotland to satisfy the demand. There was even a made-for-television celebrity challenge.
Although no U.S. team has medaled at the Winter Games since, a week ago, Team USA captured the silver medal in mixed team competition at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games. It was the latest step in a journey that began a decade ago in northern Italy.
“We went to the Olympics determined to do everything we could to promote curling,” Fenson said.
When the U.S. team arrived in Tornio a decade ago, its chances of leaving the city three weeks later with a medal seemed slim.
“We considered ourselves a contender,” Fenson said. “It didn’t feel like everyone agreed with us.”
Wasting no time in making their point, the U.S. men beat defending gold medalist Norway in the opener, then continued to roll in the 10-team round-robin combination, a prelude to the medal round.
Though the sport remained fodder for late-night TV comics and caustic columnists, the Americans quickly created a feel-good narrative: Five regular guys with everyday jobs playing with a devotion other athletes could only envy.
Fenson, Polo, Shawn Rojeski, John Shuster and fifth (or alternate) Scott Baird — at 54 the oldest Olympian at those Games — all came from Bemidji and nearby towns, where curling is carved into family trees. Americans ate it up.
“Until then, curling had some support,” said Polo, a University of North Dakota mechanical engineering student at the time. “But this was different. It was like a cult following.”
Two NBC networks showed 70 hours of competition; the audience for the first three-hour block was 10 times as large as for regular programming. President Bush joined the fun, catching the team’s 7-3 win against Switzerland on Air Force One. By the start of the medal round, the U.S. players had received thousands of emails, some of them marriage proposals.
Behind the small-town charm, however, the team was all business.
“We were a headstrong unit,” Fenson said. “We were never sidetracked. It’s amazing, even looking back, just how focused we were.”
But after gliding into the medal round, the Americans stumbled in the semifinals, getting crushed 11-5 by Canada.
“We were bummed out,” Polo said. “Lucky for us, we had a day off. We got back and realized, ‘Hey, we can still win a medal.’”
All the elements were in place for a rousing bronze-medal game. Every British player came from Scotland, the ancestral home of the 500-year-old game. Their rollicking cheering section beat on drums, tooted kazoos and sang songs as the Brits tied it 1-1 in the second end. Flag-waving American fans countered with rollicking chants of their own in the third, when Fenson’s stone knocked out two British rocks to score three points.
On it went, the tension tightening, until Fenson lined up for one last shot, the moment that helped make curling a medal-worthy sport in the United States.
“Our lives would’ve been quite different if he had missed that shot,” Polo said.
“We still hear it all the time: ‘I watched you guys in the Olympics, and I started curling right after it.’”
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.