Family, friends bid farewell to Schmirler

Sandra Schmirler was remembered Monday with both laughter and tears, which is how she lived her life. On a windy day, as formations of Canada geese headed north in a hazy sky, hundreds came to the Regina Funeral Home to say goodbye to the three-time Canadian and world curling champion and Olympic gold medallist.

More watched the nationwide funeral broadcast at Schmirler's rink, the Caledonian Curling Club, the Regina Agridome and in homes across Saskatchewan and Canada.

Schmirler, who died last Thursday of cancer at 36, was eulogized by Brian McCusker, husband of teammate Joan McCusker.

At the front of the chapel, three Team Canada jackets hung along with three world championship gold medals, three Scott Tournament of Hearts trophies and two silver platters given to national champions.

But Schmirler was both celebrated and mourned more as a woman, wife and mother of two young daughters than as a curler.

Flanking the jacket, scarf and beret she wore to the Olympic Games in Nagano in 1998 were photographs that included Schmirler in a swimming pool with her daughter Sara, Schmirler collecting medals as a young competitive swimmer, her wedding photo with Shannon England, and Schmirler and Joan McCusker dressed up in Halloween costumes with their children.

McCusker said Schmirler's most enduring trait was her compassion for others even in her last week of life.

"She was always more concerned with the problems of others," he said.

In her eight-month battle with cancer, Schmirler displayed the same feistiness that had marked her curling career.

She had told Joan McCusker the night before she died that her deteriorating condition "was just a temporary setback."

Despite her curling triumphs, she shunned the cult of celebrity and was seen by many as a person you could stop and chat with in a lineup at the grocery store.

"She was the antithesis of the glamorous person everyone envisaged," said McCusker.

Mourners laughed and wiped their eyes as he described Schmirler as a scatterbrain who needed jokes explained to her and whose teammates nicknamed Ditzy.

The service was also beamed into Saskatchewan Place, the Saskatoon arena where the Canadian men's curling championship is under way.

"If Sandra is watching, and I'm sure she is, she would be saying 'C'mon McCusker, get this thing over with. The Brier is on and I don't want to miss the first draw,' " McCusker said.

Schmirler overcame many obstacles, including a divorce in 1992 and the loss of her father to cancer only a year ago.

After marrying England she was unable to conceive and underwent surgery to try to help. Schmirler's greatest wish came true with the birth of her daughter Sara six weeks before she won the 1997 Olympic trials.

Jenna was born last June, shortly before Schmirler was diagnosed with cancer.

"Jenna was the inspiration for her courageous fight these last eight months," said McCusker, adding that Schmirler's two daughters will at least have photographs and video of their mother in her triumphs and disappointments.

The hope of one day playing again with teammates Jan Betker, Joan McCusker and Marcia Gudereit, who were part of all her curling successes, also inspired her.

"If Sandra had not met with cancer, I'm sure they would be playing together 50 years from now," said Brian McCusker.

Schmirler, born in Biggar, Sask., was an ambassador for her sport, her province and her country. That was recognized by the attendance of Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, Regina Mayor Doug Archer and federal Agriculture Minister Ralph Goodale, a Saskatchewan member of Parliament.

Schmirler's friends and rivals at the national championship, Colleen Jones of Halifax and Anne Merklinger of Ottawa, also attended.

The service captured Sandra's spirit, said Robin Wilson, co-ordinator of the Scott Tournament of Hearts and a longtime friend.

"It was moving," she said. "We laughed. We cried. It was Sandra."

In a song written especially for Schmirler, her cousin Craig Day sang Safe in the Arms of the Lord as well as Angels Among Us.

Schmirler's cousin Tara Lee Day broke down in tears reciting the poem Footprints, but bravely completed it.

Her sisters Beverley Hanowski and Carol Kostrosky gave readings from Isaiah and the Book of Psalms.

Rev. Don Wells praised Schmirler for "her magnificence, her mischief and her poise."

He advised grieving family members who will miss Schmirler just to close their eyes and think of her.

"Sandra is OK now," he said. "She's at peace with her dad."

The funeral ended five days of mourning in Saskatchewan, during which government flags flew at half-mast, moments of silence were observed at junior hockey games and prayers were offered in churches.

Pink roses were tied to a sign at the south end of the city proclaiming Regina as the home of the world and Olympic champion Schmirler rink.