Canada an underdog in curling? It may be true in mixed doubles

Despite being the dominant force in curling, Canada has lagged behind in the new game of mixed doubles. John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes hope to change that at the Olympics.

But Morris and Lawes have the talent to catch their country up in the new event

Their win at the Canadian mixed doubles trials earned a second trip to the Olympics for both Lawes and Morris. (Michael Burns/Canadian Press)

By Devin Heroux, CBC Sports

When the duo of John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes step onto the ice to compete in the first-ever mixed doubles curling tournament at the Olympics, they'll do so under lofty expectations. Curling-crazed Canada expects to win gold every time the sport is played.

But, perhaps surprisingly to many, Morris and Lawes will be trying to capture their country's first international title in the somewhat new version of the game. That's right — since the mixed doubles world championship was first held in 2008, Canada has never won it. In fact, last year's silver medal by Reid Carruthers and Joanne Courtney marked only the second time a Canadian pair reached the podium at the event.

Lawes and Morris begin their pursuit for Olympic gold even before the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. In Eastern Time, it'll be Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. when they take on Norway to open the eight-team tournament. 

"This is the epitome of sport. It's the highest you can go. It only comes around every four years and it's where you want to be," Lawes says.

Despite Canada's dominance in traditional curling (the country has won five of the 10 gold medals awarded since the sport returned to the Olympics in 1998), it has lagged behind the rest of the world in mixed doubles. But after the quirkier version was added to the Olympic program two years ago, Canadians players scrambled to learn strategy and put together winning combinations.

Switzerland has dominated international play, winning six of the 10 world championships, including last year's gold-medal victory by Martin Rios and Jenny Perret over Carruthers and Courtney.

But if there are two curlers who know the pressure of the Olympics and big games, it's Morris and Lawes. They've been there, done that.

Morris, 39, was part of Kevin Martin's team at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where they won gold in the men's event.

"It was the best month of my life. I'm still great friends with that Olympic team," Morris says.  

Lawes, 29, was part of Jennifer Jones's team four years ago that made history by going undefeated to win gold in Sochi. She's now the only Canadian woman to go to the Olympics twice consecutively in curling. 

"I could have never dreamed up a situation like this," Lawes says. "When I started playing I was four years old. I'd put both feet in the hack and push the rock with both hands as hard as I could and flop on my stomach."

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Preparing for mixed doubles without knowing it

Morris and Lawes were late forming their team for the Canadian mixed doubles trials in early January — mostly because they were both busy preparing for the team Olympic trials in Ottawa.

When those dreams were dashed, Morris called up Lawes, they practised once in Winnipeg prior to the trials, and then let their natural talent take over.

Morris likes to think the seven years he spent as Martin's third helped prepare him for mixed doubles, even if he didn't know it at the time. 

"Kevin was always a big advocate of, when you threw your rock, to get up and sweep it," Morris says. "Because a lot of people get in the hack, throw, get back in the hack, throw." 

He says they wouldn't chase their takeouts down the ice (like Morris now likes to do in mixed doubles games) but every time they threw a draw they would get up and follow the rock down the ice.

"Kevin always said, if you can throw and sweep your own rock it gives you a better perspective of the whole shot. It gives you a better feel for the throw," Morris explains.

"I never knew it would come into play all these years later in mixed doubles."

Parents' support lifts Lawes

Lawes has been proving people wrong for a long time. She still remembers when a coach told her she was too small to be an elite curler. At 5-foot-3 and 119 pounds, she's heard that a lot. 

She credits her parents for helping her stick with the sport.

Keith Lawes played in the Brier, coached younger curlers and shared his love of the game with his daughter, who keeps his memory close to her heart.

"I lost my dad 10 years ago to cancer. I think of him all of the time," Kaitlyn says. "I was pretty moved when I went to the Olympics last time, and so when we won I thought of him immediately."

Kaitlyn is also bolstered by the support of her mom, Cheryl. Whether it's planning team events, booking travel or watching every shot, Cheryl is right by her daughter's side. She was the first to hug her daughter when she clinched her second Olympic berth.

"To look up in the stands and see my mom crying and waving a giant Canada flag at me, and then jumping over the boards to give me that first hug, was a moment I'll never forget," Kaitlyn says.

Learning curve

There was a moment during the mixed doubles trials in Portage la Prairie, Man., when it looked as though Morris and Lawes were going to have their Olympic dreams dashed again. They were sitting with a 2-3 record and on the verge of missing the playoffs. 

But the two scrappy thirds found a way to win the rest of their round-robin games, making it into the 1 vs. 2 matchup. 

In that game, however, their emotions got the better of them, and Lawes was visibly frustrated after they lost to Brad Gushue and Val Sweeting. After the defeat, Morris and Lawes got together and talked through, rather bluntly, about what they both needed to do in order to fight their way into the final.

"The biggest thing throughout the trials was learning what we needed to hear from each other," Lawes says. "In this game, you're vulnerable. You are. You have to be OK with missing a shot here and there."

Morris says it was a steep learning curve, with patience being critical. 

"You have to be OK with a lot of pressure. Starting from the first rock to the last rock, every shot in mixed doubles is that much more intense."

Communication in mixed doubles is amplified in importance compared to the traditional team game. Morris and Lawes have gone to those vulnerable places on the ice together and feel positioned physically, emotionally and mentally to go on a historic run for Canada.

"We're going to leave it all on the ice and work our hardest," Lawes says. "We want that gold medal for us, our teammates and Canada."


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