(L-R) Nina Roth, Cory Christensen, Becca Hamilton, Tabitha Peterson and Aileen Geving pose for a photo at the USA House at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on Feb. 11, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Nina Roth’s colleagues couldn’t help spilling the beans.
Roth would be helping patients in a long-term acute care hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, when one of the other registered nurses would pop into the room and say, “Did you know your nurse is an Olympian?”
Roth was keeping the news to herself “just because it’s about them, it’s not about me,” she said.
But now that she’s here for the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, it’s about Roth, the skip for the American women’s team. After all, the team bears her name as “the Nina Roth rink,” and begins round-robin play Wednesday against Japan.
Team USA will also face each of the other teams in the competition: Great Britain, Switzerland, Olympic Athletes from Russia, Canada, Denmark, China, Korea and Sweden. The top four move on to the semifinals.
Roth, 29, is teamed with Tabitha Peterson, 28; Aileen Geving, 30; and Becca Hamilton, 27, who just finished seventh in mixed doubles with her older brother Matt.
And the first curling medal by a U.S. women’s team is “within our grasp," Roth said. The only curling medal in U.S. history came in 2006 when the Pete Fenson rink won the bronze.
“We’ve played really well against these teams and we’ve beaten a bunch of them,” said Roth who plans to add an Olympic rings tattoo on her foot next to her tattoo of a curling stone with the U.S. flag. “We did really well at the last world championships. We were able to overcome nerves and distractions and ended up getting fifth, but when I look back on that world experience, we were only a few shots away from qualifying (for the semifinals) and possibly getting on the podium there.
“I know a year later, a year more experience, we have what it takes to do that.”
Calling The Shots
As the skip, Roth literally calls the shots, and she said there’s a correlation to her day job as a registered nurse.
“I like to think that I’m pretty good at reading people and situations,” Roth said, “so I’m able to look at my teammates and try to figure out what they need from me – whether they need more energy, they need more calmness or a little fire under their butt.”
She’s also been consulted by curlers who say, “Look at my tonsils,” or “Is my throat swollen?”
Peterson, her vice skip, is a pharmacist, so Roth said, “We talk shop.”
Roth’s father curled when she was young, but stopped when she and her younger brother became busy with sports and other activities.
When Roth was 10, the new Madison curling club was built close to her house. Her mother, who was her Girl Scout leader, decided to take the troop to the club.
Roth didn’t get a patch for her sash – “There is not a patch for curling, but there should be” – yet found her calling.
“Sliding around on the ice and throwing rocks with my friends, it was just a niche that we found,” Roth said. “We weren’t really into the popular sports like basketball and soccer. We tried those things and curling was just kind of the perfect thing for us.”
Growing up, she didn’t ask to be a skip. But Roth’s coach thought she’d be good at it and she said, “It kind of stuck.”
Roth was a vice skip underneath two-time Olympian Erika Brown, which was the perfect transition between junior curling and women’s curling.
Passing The Torch
Brown, whose Olympic career spanned 1988 to 2014, four-time Olympian Debbie McCormick and two-time Olympian Allison Pottinger are part of the previous generation of U.S. women’s curling.
“We’ve all played with them or against them,” said Peterson. “They were kind of teaching us and mentoring us and here we are now.”
Roth got her own team in 2014. The USA Curling High Performance Program put her together with Peterson, Geving and Hamilton.
They already knew each other from the junior ranks. While Roth and Hamilton are both from McFarland, Wisconsin, Peterson and Geving are from Minnesota.
“Since playing against Nina in juniors, I’ve always thought, ‘I’ll probably play with her in the future,” Peterson said, “because I thought she was a good curler and a good skip. I’m glad that USA Curling saw that we had some good chemistry.”
The only disagreements they have, said Geving, revolve around sports teams. She and Peterson favor the Minnesota Vikings and Twins, while Roth and Hamilton prefer the Green Bay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers.
“People will see that we have a lot of heart and we really enjoy what we’re doing,” Roth said. “We’re a fierce team, but we like to have fun out there, too. So I think that’ll be enjoyable for people to see.”
Because the team wears microphones for their three-hour games, viewers will be able to hear what Roth and Peterson talk about.
“When Tab comes down to talk about the ice and take over for my shots, I kind of like to take a little break with her,” Roth said. “It’s not all strategy. We’ll talk about funny things in the crowd, funny things that happened on the ride here. Goofy stuff happens all the time that we can laugh about the entire end.”
Humming Along In The House
And sometimes they’ll sing. “We’ll just hum a little tune to relax,” Roth said.
They’ve sung Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,”“Sucker for Pain,” by artists including Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, and some Beyoncé.
“We generally forget about the mics and you end up embarrassing yourself,” Roth said.
But she doesn’t embarrass herself when she delivers the rock.
“She’s fairly calm in all game situations and I believe she calls a very good game,” said Team USA coach Al Hackner, a two-time world champion. “She’s termed an aggressive skip, which I think is the game you have to call to win these days. She’s also a very clutch shooter. When there’s a big shot to be made, she’ll come up with that shot.
Hackner said that in the games he’s watched this season, “Sometimes she just wins them all by herself.”
The skip throws the last shot. “I’ve done it for so long now that nerves don’t normally creep in,” Roth said, “but when they do, I just take my time. Often Tab will tell me, ‘Nina, you got this. Take your time.’ That’s kind of my key to take a deep breath and really go through my process.”
Roth said she has been using sports psychology the last four years, and works on breathing techniques with the help of an app downloaded on her phone.
“Curling is a long game,” she said. “Especially as a skip, I have a lot of time by myself to think and so it’s easy for negative thoughts or distractions to pop up in your brain. We like to say we have a conveyor belt: take something and then just move on to the next task.”
And if Roth needs some extra reinforcement? Well, there’s the Superman necklace her grandmother gave her.
“It’s always in my backpack,” Roth said, “but I really only remember bringing it out that one time for the Olympic trials final. My grandmother’s not here to cheer me on in Korea, but with that charm in my bag, I feel like a piece of her is with me, so it gives me some comfort and a little bit of strength.”