Road To The Olympic Games

Saskatchewan's Robyn Silvernagle trying to live up to 'idol' Sandra Schmirler

Saskatchewan's Robyn Silvernagle never got to know the late Sandra Schmirler as closely as she would have liked, but the skip is making an impact at the Scotties that would have made the icon proud.

'She was pretty special and still very special,' says skip while on in her 1st Scotties appearance

Saskatchewan skip Robyn Silvernagle isn’t fazed by the pressure the Scotties event presents. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

SYDNEY, N.S. — It's one of the most famous town slogans in all of Canada: "New York is big, but this is Biggar."

Legend has it those words were first painted onto a sign as a drunken prank by survey workers in 1914. Thirty years later it officially became the slogan Biggar, Sask.

And while the sign itself attracts worldwide attention, one famous curler from the small prairie town is what puts Biggar on the map.

Sandra Schmirler was born and raised there. It's the place where her hopes and dreams of being the best rock-thrower on pebbled ice began. It didn't take long for "Schmirler the Curler" to ascend to greatness.

WATCH | Silvernagle leads Saskatchewan past Northern Ontario at Scotties:

Robyn Silvernagle skipped her team to an 11-5 win in the opening match of the Championship Round at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. 0:40

With her teams, Schmirler captured three Canadian and world titles in the 90s. She capped off an extraordinary stretch by winning the first-ever Olympic gold medal in curling at the 1998 Nagano Games.

Back home the locals were going wild. Their Sandra Schmirler left their community to take on the world, and won. They couldn't have been more proud and it was time to celebrate.

Biggar held a parade for Schmirler when she returned. Everyone in the town was there, along with hundreds of others from communities across the land.

In the middle of it all was a starry-eyed 10-year-old girl who would have her curling dreams sparked by Schmirler that day.

The late Sandra Schmirler, left, remains an icon in the province of Saskatchewan. (Canadian Press)

"We were in my grandma's basement because that's where she got ready for the parade," Saskatchewan skip Robyn Silvernagle said. "I tried on her medal and her jacket and took photos with her."

Silvernagle knows how much curling means to her family and the people of Saskatchewan. In fact, her mother, Anita Silvernagle, was Schmirler's skip in 1981 when the two guided Biggar Comprehensive High School to a provincial championship.

"Then Sandra moved on to bigger and better things and my mom had babies," laughed Silvernagle. "I guess I have to thank her for that and my love of curling as well."

Silvernagle never got to know Schmirler as closely as she would have liked but her presence was felt every time she took to the ice in Biggar. Schmirler had already left for Regina to begin her curling career when Silvernagle really got into the game.

When Schmirler died of cancer in 2000, Silvernagle was devastated. The whole town was. A country was in mourning. A Silvernagle still carries the spirit of Schmirler whenever she takes to the ice.

"She was pretty special and still very special. She was totally my idol and someone I aspire to be like," Silvernagle said.

Finally getting to the Scotties

For years Silvernagle has tried to be become that next skip from Biggar to win since Schmirler. And getting to the Scotties has been a long road Silvernagle could have never prepared for.

In fact, it almost caused her to quit the game.

Leading up to this year's provincials in Saskatchewan, Silvernagle had suffered heartbreaking defeats. The previous two years she lost on the final rock in both championship games.

One came in an extra end, the other came on the last rock of the game.

"It was hard. Lots of support kept me going," Silvernagle said. "You just have to dig deeper. You look at so many great athletes, they've all done their fair share of losing."

And then it almost happened again this year.

Longtime Saskatchewan skip Sherry Anderson had a tricky runback with her last rock against Silvernagle in this year's provincial final to win the game. The skip couldn't watch.

"I left the ice and I went to bathroom on that last rock. I couldn't watch," Silvernagle said. "I was like if she makes this shot I'll replay it through my mind so many times I'll quit."

Anderson missed. Silvernagle heard the cheers from the bathroom but had no idea what the cheers meant.

"I'm nowhere to be found and they're all celebrating and I come flying out of the bathroom," she said. "I went flying out on the ice. It was one of the best celebrations you'll ever see."

The Silvernagle family in full force at the national curling championship. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

Into the championship round

In her first-ever Scotties appearance, Silvernagle's Saskatchewan team is on a roll. They finished the preliminary round with a 5-2 record and they're now preparing for the next stage of the Scotties.

Silvernagle says she's been inundated with messages from back home — proud curling fans in Biggar who are watching every shot, just like they did with Schmirler.

"Biggar is so behind us even now. The whole town is cheering and they're so excited," Silvernagle said. "They're all behind us just like they would have been cheering for Sandra all those years ago."

The 31-year-old seems unfazed by the big stage, as if she's been preparing for this moment her entire life.

In a lot of ways she has — Silvernagle is reflecting back to all those hours spent curling back in Biggar pretending she was Schmirler preparing to make her last rock.

"I've looked up to her all of my life. I was just this little girl looking up to her thinking 'I want to do that someday,'" Silvernagle said. "That's going to be me some day."

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