Road To The Olympic Games

Olympics Winter

Bernard not the favourite in women's curling

Despite her dominating victory at the Canadian curling trials, Cheryl Bernard faces a daunting task in Vancouver, where some say she'll be hard-pressed to defeat reigning world champion Bingyu Wang of China and defending Olympic gold medallist Anette Norberg of Sweden.

Cheryl Bernard and Sidney Crosby have something in common.

When the Canadian women's curling skip and the best player on the men's hockey team step onto the ice in Vancouver, they'll both be held to a standard bordering on unreasonable: gold medal or bust.

Like Crosby, Bernard plays a sport that Canadians claim to own, despite ample evidence that other countries are capable of going toe-to-toe at the highest level. The curler, though, faces an added problem.

Sid the Kid can at least take comfort in the fact that his team is widely considered the best in its tournament — even if only by a slim margin — by hockey cognoscenti. But those in the know in curling will tell you something that many casual Olympic viewers may not realize: Bernard is not the favourite in women's curling.

In fact, she may not even rank in the top two. CBC curling analysts Mike Harris and Joan McCusker both say the championship final is most likely to pit China's Bingyu Wang, the reigning world champion, against Sweden's Anette Norberg, the defending Olympic gold medallist.

'Unfair expectation'

"Cheryl Bernard is going to have to fight really hard for a medal," said McCusker, a member of the 1998 Olympic championship rink skipped by the late Sandra Schmirler. "That's not saying that medal can't be gold, but it's going to be a really hard road for her.

"That's what people need to know. Canadians expect our curlers to win a gold medal. I think that's an unfair expectation."

This is not a reflection on Bernard, the analysts are quick to say. Though the Calgarian, who's never won the Tournament of Hearts, came into December's Canadian curling trials as something of an afterthought, she left no doubt that she was the cream of an exceptionally deep field.

Bernard and teammates Susan O'Connor, Carolyn Darbyshire and Cori Bartel lost just one round-robin game, earning a bye to the final with their 6-1 record. There, Bernard showed nerves of steel, executing a heart-pounding draw with the game's final stone to defeat 2006 Olympic bronze medallist Shannon Kleibrink and earn the trip to Vancouver.

"This isn't a flash-in-the-pan team," McCusker said.

International invasion

Bernard's victory disappointed some Canadian fans who were hoping to be represented by Jennifer Jones (the Winnipegger would go on to capture her third consecutive national title in February).

But both Harris and McCusker say it wouldn't matter who skips Team Canada: the international competition is simply that good. Just look at Jones's record at the world championships, where in three appearances the reigning Queen of the Hearts has won just one medal (gold in 2008).

More proof can be found on the World Curling Tour, where international teams account for half of the Top 10 money winners this season. Great Britain's Eve Muirhead (No. 4), American Debbie McCormick (No. 5), Wang (No. 6), Japan's Moe Meguro (No. 7) and Germany's Andrea Schopp (No. 10) will all compete at the Olympics.

"In the past, you wouldn't have found [non-Canadian] teams in the top 50," McCusker said. "Now they're all in the top 20. That speaks volumes."

Muirhead and McCormick are both legitimate medal contenders. Muirhead, who's only 19, won the last two world junior titles, and she'll have former world champ Jackie Lockhart (at 44, old enough to be her mother) at her side. The Saskatoon-born McCormick won the world championship in 2003 and was the runner-up in 2006.

Switzerland's Mirjam Ott (No. 17 on the Tour's money list) also has the ability to spoil the party in Vancouver after taking silver at each of the last two Winter Games. Ott will face Bernard in the opening draw on Tuesday.

China and Sweden, though, are the class of the field.

Curling 9 to 5

Wang's rink has a unique advantage: paid by their national government, curling is their full-time job (virtually everyone else spends their 9-to-5s in another occupation). During the season, the 24-year-old skip and her teammates live and train in Canada — allowing them to work under Canadian coaching and play a full slate of bonspiels in the country that still boasts, by far, the largest number of top-flight curlers. They are the future.

And the present, too: after losing to Jones in the final of the 2008 worlds, Wang and company dominated last year's tournament in South Korea. Dropping just one game along the way, they beat Norberg in the final to claim China's first (and probably not last) world title in curling.

"They know exactly what they're doing out there," Bernard told CBCSports.ca in the lead-up to the Olympics. "It doesn't take as long [to improve your game] when you have that kind of time and the opportunities that their government gives them."

Norberg represents "the old guard," as McCusker calls it. The 43-year-old actuary can trace her Olympic history all the way back to the 1988 Games in Calgary, where she skipped Sweden to a silver medal in the demonstration event. Norberg went on to capture seven European titles, back-to-back world championships in 2005 and '06, and of course the Olympic gold in Turin.

"This is a powerhouse team," McCusker said. "Many people think maybe they've passed their peak, which was four years ago, but I think they're still an unbelievable threat."

So Bernard clearly has her work cut out for her. But don't forget what her team did last time it entered a big-time tournament as an underdog.

"The pressure of being the favourite wasn't there [at the Canadian trials]," Bernard told CBCSports.ca. "And it worked the right way for us."

"Being under the radar wasn't such a bad thing."