GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Bagpipe music played, standard-bearers in colorful, traditional Korean dress introduced the eight competing countries and curling mixed doubles swept into the Olympic Games PyeongChang 2018.
When Scotsmen drew up the first rules of curling in the 1800s, they never could have foreseen the scene Thursday in the Gangneung Curling Centre as one of the four new Olympic events made its debut.
Becca and Matt Hamilton of McFarland, Wisconsin, the brother-and-sister team representing Team USA, came ready to rock.
Before competition began, Becca said the siblings were excited to get on the ice first for the United States. “We’re kind of paving the way for all our teams,” she said.
They got Team USA off to a good start, winning the first mixed doubles game in Olympic history – about 33 hours before the Games officially begin with Friday night’s Opening Ceremony.
In a morning match-up, the Hamiltons scored a 9-3 victory over married couple Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii, the 2016 world champions representing the Olympic Athletes from Russia team. Their game finished about five minutes before any of the other three games in the round robin.
The Hamiltons then came back to the ice for a North American showdown against Canada, losing 6-4 while many in the crowd were focused two sheets over, where South Korea dropped a close game to China 8-7.
The Hamiltons were tied 2-2 with Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris, then the Canadians pulled ahead 5-2 after the fifth end and held on to win.
“We had one bad end out of 15,” said Matt Hamilton, “so fix that and we’re going to be a force.”
The round robin resumes Friday with two more games.
“I have full confidence that we can bounce back tomorrow,” said Becca Hamilton. “If we come out just a hair sharper, we’ll be just fine.”
After all, they got into a hole at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Mixed Doubles Curling and came storming back.
Mixed doubles, which made its first world championships appearance in 2008, is a faster version of curling and lasts half the time, with most games about 90 minutes. Two stones are pre-positioned before each end, and the players combine to throw five stones instead of 16. The game consists of eight ends rather than 10.
Mixed doubles also has a family appeal. Teams at the world championships have been composed of husbands and wives, siblings like the Hamiltons, fathers and daughters and even a grandfather-granddaughter team from Kazakhstan, said Derek Brown, the USA Curling Director of High Performance.
“Mixed doubles is kind of designed for the viewer,” said Becca. “It’s fast-paced and we’re constantly moving back and forth. It’s a lot of action, more rocks in play so it’s fun to watch.”
The Gangneung Curling Centre was nearly full, with the crowd cheering loudly when there was the resounding “thunk” of a rock knocking other rocks out of the “house.” Some fans had cowbells, but they used them sparingly.
“I love seeing fans in the stands,” said Becca. “They’re respectful. They cheer when they’re supposed to and are quiet when someone’s delivering. Curling’s kind of a gentleman’s game, so it’s kind of nice to be a part of that atmosphere.
Does she think the fans in Korea understand the difference between mixed doubles and regular curling?
“I don’t think many people do,” Becca said. “If you don’t know what curling is, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference.”
The Hamiltons have a distinctly All-American pre-game ritual, tossing a football for a few minutes.
“For both of us that’s our dominant arm in sweeping,” Matt Hamilton said, “so it kind of loosens up the muscles and rotator cuff and everything in there.”
The Green Bay Packers fans said they do their best to emulate quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Would he make a good curler? “Yeah,” Matt said, “if I gave him some good training. He’d have to hit me up and ask me to help him.”
But for the next two weeks, Matt's kind of busy. Besides mixed doubles, Becca and Matt are on the women’s and men’s teams. They could potentially play 18 straight days.
“Fifty hours on ice,” said Matt.
He and Becca know that some viewers in the U.S. sit on their couches watching them curl and think they can do it.
“Go out and try it and get back to me,” said Becca.
Added Matt, “If you’re good, you’re good. See you in four years at the trials.”