'It's like a 1st date': Mixed doubles Olympic curling trials underway
18 teams set sights on 1st ever berth in sport’s Olympic debut
PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE, Man. — The quest to become Canada's first ever Olympic representative in the newly formed discipline of mixed doubles curling is underway. So far, it's been somewhat of a learning experience for the teams as they try to navigate the ice and communicate with their playing partners.
Two years ago mixed doubles was added to the Olympic program. Now with the Games about a month away, 18 pairs are vying for one ticket to South Korea.
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The field is stacked and includes past Olympic, world and Canadian champions, such as Jennifer Jones, Brad Gushue, and Sherry Middaugh.
Gushue is one of the best skips in the world but rarely plays mixed doubles. In fact, this is only the third time he is playing the new discipline.
"I felt like last week I was cramming for an exam online. I certainly don't feel as ready as I'd like to be with an Olympic spot on the line," he said.
Gushue is playing alongside Alberta skip Val Sweeting. The two have never played together before.
"You're not going to go out there and be an ass. It's like a first date," he said "You're going to be a nice guy and put a smile on if someone misses."
Gushue, who won Olympic gold in 2006, has spent the last few weeks not only learning mixed doubles but also getting over the disappointment of his team being eliminated from the Canadian trials last month. After the trials, he didn't touch a rock for 10 days before getting back to the club.
"Because I don't feel as prepared as I'd like to be, I'm trying to keep a pretty easy-going attitude and take it for what it is," he said.
Curling is still curling
In a lot of ways the mixed doubles game is very different from the traditional four-person game. The teams play five rocks each end. They can sweep their own rocks. It's only eight ends. It can be a blur and the players know it.
"Every end is mentally tiring because there are so many rocks in play," said Jennifer Jones.
Jones, like Gushue, is also trying to shake off the disappointment of not getting back to the Olympics with her team to defend their 2014 gold medal. She's teamed up with Mark Nichols, Gushue's third, to try to find another way back to the Games.
"Being at the Olympics, it's such an honour," Jones said. She went undefeated to win gold in Sochi four years ago.
Jones normally plays mixed doubles alongside her husband, Brent Laing, but she had to find a new partner after he booked his Olympic ticket with Kevin Koe's team. She says she talked on the phone a number of times with Nichols to plan their strategy coming into this event.
Jones says she has a lot of experience with this newer style of game, but says it's still curling and you still have to execute.
"It's a faster game. A lot of rocks in play. At the end of the day it's still curling though and you have to make shots. You have to make decisions quicker," Jones said.
Please don't stop the music?
Throughout all of these games music has been playing over the speakers inside Stride Place. In some ways it suits the more relaxed yet fast-paced style of play, but it's also to break the quiet in the building as there are fewer players on the ice.
It's certainly a big step away from the traditional game, when music is not playing during any of the game action.
The players don't seem to mind — they just might want to be the ones picking what songs that are playing.
Great to have music but maybe we can remove Hello by Adele from the playlist. 😴—@bpgallant
"I love the music playing. I think there should be music playing all the time. It's a little more laid back but at the same time we're focused on what our task is," Kaitlyn Lawes said.
Rebounding from first Olympic opportunity loss
Chelsea Carey is still getting over her loss in the Olympic curling trials final against Rachel Homan, when she missed a difficult double on her last shot of the game that would have forced an extra end. But now she's putting that behind her and is ready to make another run at the Games with her playing partner, Colin Hodgson.
"There's not a way to make it go away. It took me a week to get back to the club. I had to feel the feelings," she said. "I dreaded going back, but once I got back it felt good. It was the idea of going back that was worse than actually going back."
Carey grew up in Winnipeg and calls Hodgson one of her best friends. The two have played together in the past and feel prepared to make a serious push for the playoffs this week.
"On the one hand, I always pictured going to the Olympics with a team but it's an opportunity to do it with my best friend in the world."
Top eight advance to playoff round
Eighteen teams will play six draws daily Tuesday through Thursday. The teams are split into two nine-team pools, with seeding based on the Canadian mixed doubles rankings.
They will all play one game against the teams within their pools before eight teams (first and second in each pool, and the next four best win-loss records) move onto the playoffs.
The top eight teams will advance to the playoff round. The opening round of that eight-team playoff begins on Friday. The championship game is set for Sunday afternoon.
Mixed doubles curling, featuring eight countries, gets underway the day before the opening ceremonies on Feb. 8, and will conclude with the gold and bronze-medal games on Feb. 13.