CHAMPERY, Switzerland - While Tuesday’s loss to Sweden marked their final game of the tournament at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland, Team USA’s mixed team of Ethan Hebert, Kaitlin Murphy, Charlie Thompson and Alina Tschumakow were able to keep their heads held high after the defeat, thanks to a mature perspective and strong team chemistry.
“I mean, the curling obviously could be going better, but I really feel like we’re doing our best to represent the USA,” Thompson said. “I think we’ve battled through.”
And battle they did. While the four Americans did not advance to Wednesday’s knock-out stages, even just playing in these first five matches was quite the accomplishment. After all, the team was not even expected to be in Switzerland.
“We put the team together back in March and had our first practice in May or June. I think we went out there about four times [before October’s qualifying tournament],” Murphy explained.
An underdog going into the national qualifying tournament, the team won it all in a smart, defensive game to earn the opportunity to represent the U.S. at Lausanne 2020. The team’s coach, 2010 Olympian John Benton, attributed this to their chemistry. Since curling isn’t an individual sport, having the best individual curlers isn’t enough – the curlers need a good group culture, too.
While Hebert and Tschumakow both come from the same curling club in Boston, Thompson is based in Wisconsin and Murphy hails from Ohio. After qualifying in October, they trained together again once in November. Then, they all went back to their hometowns to train solo, using the tips and training plan Coach Benton laid out for each of them. But when team dynamic is important too, just training solo is not enough – the teammates had to work to build their camaraderie from afar.
“It is difficult,” explained Thompson. “It’s not like a normal team where you’re practicing a couple times a week in the same venue – it does require a little bit of extra effort in order to make sure everyone’s on the same page. I think we’ve done a good job.”
They credit technology with helping them become close, quickly. The team has multiple group chats across social media platforms to stay involved in each other’s lives and learn more about each other. The chats make it easy to send a quick text or photo to check in and share what they are up to. When asked who maybe shares too much, there’s laughter and agreement all around: Murphy. Even she nods and agrees, smiling.
“She’ll just send us photos when we’re not doing anything, and we’re like, ‘where did that come from?’” said Tschumakow. “She’s always replies, ‘I just wanted to say hi!’ She’s the most present on social media – she’s just the one that’s always there to talk to us. It’s nice.”
That closeness and camaraderie built even when apart helped them get to Switzerland, and they continued bringing the fun to the arena each day.
“[That positive attitude is] one of the things I think they did really well when they qualified,” said Murphy’s mom, Jen. “They certainly were not the favorite to win it, but they were the loosest team on the ice. They were having fun…That really helped them to get where they got, so I think they are trying to carry that here as well.”
That dynamic became clear to the crowd even before they took the ice each game. To stay loose before a match, Tschumakow and Murphy could be spotted dancing to the top-40 pop songs blasting through the arena’s speakers and trying to have their male counterparts join in. Hebert made jokes as he chatted with teammates, and they laughed. The four traded high-fives. While the focus snapped into place with each strategy discussion and throw, they recognized there is a balance needed to play at an elite level.
The Swiss audience seemed to appreciate this attitude as well. While the host country’s team received the loudest cheers of the day, the U.S. also had a strong support section, as a group of school kids latched onto the team. Their chants of “U-S-A” rang out through the arena, and when the team glanced up to smile between ends, the screams only increased. Tschumakow’s sister, Nadia, was impressed by their enthusiasm and handed out American flags to wave as well – leading to even more enthusiastic support.
“That was great. That was awesome!” gushed Hebert after the game.
While the tournament did not end with the result they were looking for, after their elimination, the Americans were able to step back and keep a positive perspective in place. The entire experience, they explained, has been an amazing one. From the loud crowd and the enthusiastic volunteers, to playing in a true arena for the first time, to representing Team USA, they described the last week as an honor and a ‘breathtaking’ opportunity – one that they were thankful to experience. Most importantly, they said, they were determined to stay positive.
“That’s the most important thing. Even if we don’t finish on top, we want the U.S. to know that we came and played our hearts out and we played with smiles on our faces,” said Murphy.
The four will have another chance to bring their smiles to the ice, as each will team up with an athlete from another country to compete in the mixed-country doubles event, which starts on Jan. 18.