CBC Sports Oral Histories: Brad Gushue’s emotional journey to Olympic curling gold

CBC Sports Oral Histories: Brad Gushue’s emotional journey to Olympic curling gold


The young rink got some veteran help for Torino 2006, but Gushue's mind was in St. John's with his ailing mother

By Devin Heroux, CBC Sports
February 12, 2022
 

In the summer of 2005, Brad Gushue felt that something was missing.

The 25-year-old skip thought his team needed to add someone else that could bring them to another level; someone that would help them compete against the best curlers in Canada – and eventually, the world.

Gushue – alongside Mark Nichols, Jamie Korab and Mike Adam – believed they needed a spark before the upcoming Canadian Olympic curling trials in Halifax.

As that pivotal competition neared and Gushue pondered who the missing piece to his championship rink was, he got news that rocked his world. His mom Maureen had been diagnosed with cancer.

Gushue was prepared to stay home and look after her in the most crucial months leading up to the competition. But both his mom and Toby McDonald, his coach at the time, convinced Gushue to keep playing.

That led the St. John’s skip to ask veteran curler Russ Howard – who at 50 years old was twice Gushue’s age – to join the young team just weeks ahead of the Olympic trials. Howard said yes.

And a dream team was formed.

Brad Gushue knew his team needed a spark if they wanted to compete for Canada at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. But, for a time, he considered not competing to stay home and help care for his mother. (Reuters) Brad Gushue knew his team needed a spark if they wanted to compete for Canada at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. But, for a time, he considered not competing to stay home and help care for his mother. (Reuters)
 

Brad Gushue, skip: We found out in August about mom[’s cancer diagnosis] and that it was fairly serious. The focus was on her. I wasn’t working and was solely focused on getting to the Olympics. My parents were supporting me. I felt with my sister being away, I would have to take on a bigger role to support my mom. I wasn’t going to curl in the fall. I had made that decision, and she said, ‘you’re going to play.’

So, she called up Toby [who] convinced me to play. That took about three days from the point I said I wasn’t playing to Toby convincing me.

Throughout the fall was a bit of a challenge. When we went on the road to play, someone had to come take care of my mom. It was always in the back of your mind. To be honest, it was probably a good distraction. It put curling into perspective and made some of the curling challenges easier to handle.

Ray and Maureen Gushue, Brad's parents, are shown in this 2018 photo. Maureen was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2005, which led her son to reconsider his commitment to curling in the Olympic trials. (Photo by Devin Heroux) Ray and Maureen Gushue, Brad's parents, are shown in this 2018 photo. Maureen was diagnosed with cancer in August of 2005, which led her son to reconsider his commitment to curling in the Olympic trials. (Photo by Devin Heroux)

Maureen Gushue, Brad’s mom: I got diagnosed with cancer in August and … had my surgery in September, and then I started my treatments in October. I was doing really well with the chemo treatments until December, when I started with radiation. That’s when it hit me hard.

Bruce Rainnie, CBC Sports broadcaster: One of the stories going on behind the scenes was Brad’s mom. She was back home in Newfoundland in a pretty precarious situation battling cancer. It was a big, big story. Brad wanted to win the trials and get to the Olympics and win for his country, but he equally wanted to win it for his mom.

Brad: It just puts things into perspective. I think at that point in my life, being 25 and daily self-centred, it just put things into perspective better for me and it allowed me to perform at a level that was extremely high.

We didn’t have a great Brier in 2005. We had some struggles. The part I remember distinctly was at the end of the season. I went into Toby’s office …and I was thinking about a team change.

I asked him if we had an opportunity to win at the trials. Usually, with a question like that Toby would ask me questions to let me answer the question myself. A second after that question, he said "no."

I realized we needed to make a change. My first thought was Russ. Toby said we should list off a few others. Ultimately, we just kept coming back to Russ.

Russ Howard was approached by Gushue to join his rink in the summer of 2005. (Reuters) Russ Howard was approached by Gushue to join his rink in the summer of 2005. (Reuters)
 

Russ Howard, two-time Brier and world champion: That summer they had approached me and said ‘would you be the coach?’ I told them I’d be honoured. Toby said he wanted me to work on their strategy. I invited them to Moncton in the middle of September because we had ice and they didn't.

We threw a bunch of rocks, worked on a bunch of things. They played in four bonspiels after that and did horrible in all four of them.

They told Toby they were having trouble. Toby’s answer was that they had ‘Jack Nicklaus on the bench, why don’t they bring him in and see what happens?’

Of course, he was talking about me.

Brad: We started the season very slow without Russ. We were not making the playoffs at events. Nothing was coming easy. We were playing at an event in New York. I wanted Russ to play and he did. We went undefeated through the round robin. It felt pretty good. We played another Slam in Port Hawkesbury. It felt right. We made the decision Russ was going to play second.

At that stage of my career, I felt he was much better suited to be calling the game than playing second and sweeping. It made complete sense. The sweeping wasn’t an issue for me and I still wanted to throw last rocks.

I asked for the final call on any shot, any of my shots in particular. That gave me the comfort I needed to play. That was what helped us work, the trust in each other.

We didn’t announce the decision Russ was playing until fairly close to the trials. It caught a lot of people by surprise.

Rainnie: Remember – Brad, at that point, was a really young skip who probably had a reputation at times [as someone] who would make calls that could be questioned. That’s why he brought on Russ. He wanted Russ there to be the sage, old eye of wisdom who would back him up or tell him ‘why don’t you try something else instead?’

Brad was smart enough to know when to listen. And that’s why Russ was there. Once they figured that out, it was just off to the races.

Gushue yells to his teammates after making a shot at the 2005 Canadian Olympic curling trials in Halifax.(Reuters) Gushue yells to his teammates after making a shot at the 2005 Canadian Olympic curling trials in Halifax.(Reuters)
 

The new team headed to Halifax to compete in the 2005 Olympic trials. With names like Glenn Howard, Jeff Stoughton, and Randy Ferbey in the field, not many were giving Gushue a chance.

That changed in a hurry.

Howard: Now, I’m on the ice at the Olympic trials with four days’ notice and our first game was against my brother [Glenn Howard]. That’s how fast it happened. We won our first two, then we were playing Ferbey. He was 1-1 and was the favourite.

I didn’t have any expectations. I’m thinking these kids are good and need a lot of encouragement. I’m trying to stay calm and stay loose for them.

We beat Glenn…then we knocked off Ferbey. Once we beat him, we had the best shot at making the playoffs.

The Olympic trials, every game is a war. Starting 3-0 was huge for us. And then I was starting to realize how good Brad, Mark and Jamie were.

Brad: We were playing really well and teams were kind of looking out for us. It just always felt like we were always going to win. It’s easy to say in hindsight but that’s how much confidence I felt.

The nerves for me built as the week went along because I knew we were going to have a chance. That’s when the struggles started to come for me, knowing we were going to play a game to go to the Olympics.

Howard: The biggest teaching moment for me was at those trials. We won the round robin on Thursday. We didn’t curl in the final until Sunday. That's excruciating. You don’t know what to do. It’s Saturday afternoon and Brad and I are laying on the beds 24 hours away from the game. Brad says to me, ‘are you nervous?’

I thought I could answer this in about nine different ways. I thought for a second and then told him, ‘I am nervous. I think it’s just natural,’ I said. ‘It’s part of the sport.’

I just came up with some bulls–t. I said something like ‘as long as we recognize we’re nervous, you have a much better chance of executing.’ I think it helped him out – but I know it helped me out.

Gushue was set to take on Jeff Stoughton for the right to represent Canada at the Olympics. The team would end up defeating Stoughton 8-7.

Howard hugs Gushue after their team beat Jeff Stoughton to earn the right to represent Canada at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. (The Canadian Press) Howard hugs Gushue after their team beat Jeff Stoughton to earn the right to represent Canada at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. (The Canadian Press)
 

Brad: I really struggled with my nerves once we got to the bye to the final. We had all of Friday and Saturday and most of Sunday off. I didn’t eat on the Friday, ate a little on the Saturday. I really struggled. It’s the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life.

All of our preparation was focused on winning that one game. And then all of a sudden we were there. There was a calmness to Russ all week and handled himself accordingly. I’m not surprised he was more nervous than what he led on.

When we won, it was probably the craziest feeling. The euphoria. The release of all that pressure. It was just so exciting. You start to dream of wearing the Canada gear and playing with the rings on the rocks and in the house. All those things race through your head. It was a pretty incredible experience.

Howard: Winning the trials was amazing and kind of funny because my family was there, because they drove to Halifax.

We got together after the win and replayed the whole game. I was packed up and ready to drive back to Moncton with my family because a snowstorm was coming. Mike Adam knocked on the door. He says ‘you’re not going to Moncton. You’re going to Newfoundland.'

They stuck me on the airplane with them and it was freaking bedlam in St. John’s when we won the trials. It was nuts.

From left to right, Brad Gushue, Mark Nichols, Russ Howard, and Jamie Korab proudly display their medals after winning the Canadian men's Olympic curling trials final. (The Canadian Press) From left to right, Brad Gushue, Mark Nichols, Russ Howard, and Jamie Korab proudly display their medals after winning the Canadian men's Olympic curling trials final. (The Canadian Press)
 

Maureen was healthy enough to be there in Halifax to watch her son realize his dream of making it to the Olympics. Brad’s family was all there and they all had plans to travel to the Olympics in Turin together.

But things took a turn for the worse.

Maureen: I ended up in hospital in January. It was only a couple of weeks before Brad and the team were leaving. I got out of hospital the day before he left and up to that point I was going to Italy, come hell or high water. I was going. Then I ended up having another bout and ended up in hospital again. That’s when I decided I couldn’t go.

Brad was upset and didn’t want to go because I wasn’t feeling well. So I told him he had to go. You can’t cancel this. I told him dad will go and I’ll stay home. My large family was here with me. My sister from Ontario came here and stayed with me. I was well looked after. Ray and I talked to Brad and told him he had to go.

Gushue is embraced by his family, including his mom, Maureen, after winning the Canadian Olympic curling trials in Halifax. (Reuters) Gushue is embraced by his family, including his mom, Maureen, after winning the Canadian Olympic curling trials in Halifax. (Reuters)
 

Brad: I wanted her [at the Olympics] so badly and her to be part of it. We had all the plans in place to make sure she would have support. She had a setback a couple weeks before the Olympics and we made the emotional decision she was going to stay home.

My biggest thing was to make sure she felt part of it.

Maureen: It was hard. It was really hard to see him leave. At the time I was so sick. I get upset when I talk about it. I was to a point where I wondered if I’d ever see him again.

I ended up in hospital while he was over there. I contemplated telling him or just leaving him alone. I didn’t [tell him]. I was going back and forth to the hospital. They were giving me IV for three or four days. Supplements because I couldn’t eat. My blood was low. I had hit rock bottom.

Brad: I tried to communicate with my mom as much as I could. The [Canadian Olympic Committee] provided us with phones. The struggle for me was that I couldn’t get a hold of her the day of the semifinals. I knew there was something up. I found out after she had been admitted back in the hospital. She was just not feeling great. And when I called the house she wasn’t there to answer it. My whole family kept it a secret and I didn’t learn about it until I got home.

She was able to get home for the final.

Maureen: Brad was calling every day and I wasn’t answering the phone. He was really worried. He was asking about mom. We told him I was with my sisters but I was at the hospital. It was on the weekend and I ended up in hospital again. I said we had to tell him. I called him and told him I was in hospital and there was nothing to be worried about.

I was in the hospital for a few days and had blood transfusions. I got out a couple of days after [but] ended up with a blood clot in my leg. By the time of the semifinal and final, I was home. I was OK but still not 100 per cent. But watching the game and seeing him live his dream was very emotional.

 
 

The team struggled in the early part of the round robin at the Olympics. For as good as they were, they had lost their touch and confidence.

It put Team Gushue in a must-win situation in their final game of the round robin: to make it to the semifinals, they had to beat the United States.

Howard: The ice was horrible. The rocks were worse. We played average in the round robin. Mike Adam came in for Jamie for the final game that we had to win.

Brad: The ice was the absolute s–ts. It was horrible. The fact you couldn't get rocks to curl was shocking to us. Then, to create curl, they were banking the sides. We struggled in all areas of the game. There was a sickness going through our team. There were a ton of things that went wrong that week.

Mark did struggle through the whole round robin. He was trying to throw it softer and we told him to throw it hard. And then he made three-straight runbacks.

But as the week went on, we had to stop complaining about it. It was a conversation we had as a team. We sucked it up and dealt with it. The attitude and shot-making improved dramatically and the rest is history after that. But it was a grind.

Nichols (left) examines a shot with Gushue and Howard in Turin. Nichols had 
a rough start to the Olympic tourney, but a practice session with Howard helped turned things around for the playoffs. (Reuters) Nichols (left) examines a shot with Gushue and Howard in Turin. Nichols had a rough start to the Olympic tourney, but a practice session with Howard helped turned things around for the playoffs. (Reuters)
 

Howard: We got a day off before the semifinal. We got a one-hour practice before the semi. Mark hadn’t played all that well all week. Then we do this practice. With five minutes to go, Mark walked off the ice. I went and talked to him. He told me he couldn’t make a peel for my life.

I asked ‘what’s changed?’ Somebody – before the event – [told] Mark to change his delivery. I told Mark, ‘let’s go back out.’ We had run out time though on that ice, so we went down the road to a curling club. I pebbled the ice and we started throwing rocks the day before the semifinal.

We just kept throwing rocks. I told him to go back to the old delivery and – on a stack of bibles, I swear – he made seven peels in a row.

Then he curled something like 94 per cent in the semifinal and then something like 96 per cent in the final. You could see in his face after every shot he was beaming. He was curling so well and he knew it. That was the most rewarding thing for me.

 

Rainnie: I was in Torino to call women’s hockey and so there were a few down days between the games. So they put me on this little shooter train out to a place called Pinerolo. It was about two hours each way to be on the on-ice reporter for curling. [The Canadian curlers] were struggling when I first got there. I don't think they were playing as good as they could and the chemistry seemed to be off. But that gradually improved throughout the week.

I believe Jamie Korab played a big part in that. He’s such a character and injected that lightness when it was required. As the Games went along you got the sense they were starting to gel and their game was improving and they were going to peak at exactly the right time. The guy who was off-the-charts good for this run was Mark Nichols.

He made ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot and made it look so easy.

 

Gushue’s team defeated the United States to earn a spot in the championship game at the Olympics against Finland.

In one of the most anticlimactic gold-medal matches, Gushue scored six points in the sixth end to cruise to a 10-4 victory.

Brad: The nerves before the gold-medal game were one per cent compared to the trials final. I felt pretty good, obviously the nerves were there but there was nothing out of whack. I thought Russ was really nervous when we were in the locker room. I totally understood this because here’s one of the greatest curlers of all time at the end of his career with a chance to win Olympic gold. He handled it very well during the game.

Rainnie: There was no doubt Canada was the best team there. They had the three young guys who were incredibly skilled, especially Gushue and Nichols, who at the time and maybe still today were and are the best in the world at the third and skip positions.

Then you had the sage guy Russ playing out of position at second but still making key calls. Korab was so strong and such a great sweeper.

I just recall a certain confidence.

Howard and Gushue chat during a break in play at the Turin Games. (Reuters) Howard and Gushue chat during a break in play at the Turin Games. (Reuters)
 

Howard: I took the role of coach. I never felt like I was the second stone because I was the skip. I was kind of the quarterback. Reading the rocks. Almost every rock I liked I gave to Brad.

After it was all over I felt a great sense of accomplishment with helping them out. Those guys had less pressure than a lot of players because they were young and thought they’d do this a lot. They were playing with house money. I wasn’t. I was 50 years old.

But I thought if I show any weakness with the pressure, these kids are going to crumble. Maybe that wasn’t the case. But guess who it helped? It helped me.

Maureen: We had CBC at the house. They filmed us and the family the whole game. We had friends here. We had a lot of support. It was a proud moment for everyone.

Brad: It always felt like we were going to win that game. They were on edge. I felt it was just a matter of time and then in the sixth end when he missed his last shot and I looked around, I literally counted six of our rocks. And then I counted again. That means it’s 10-3 and I went, ‘holy s–t, we just won Olympic gold.’

Russ said 'let’s draw to the button.' But I wanted to draw to the wing. The adrenaline was running through my body. Everyone says it flew through the rings but it barely went out the back. I did overthrow it, but it wasn’t that bad.

I prepared my whole career to draw the button to win Olympic gold, not draw to the wings for seven.

 

Brad: We had to spend the next half hour or 40 minutes because we had to play eight ends. All we were trying to do was compose ourselves and not mess it up and let them creep back into it. Those guys were so disengaged. It was just nice when they started walking to us with their hands out to shake hands.

In the eighth end I started thinking about calling mom. I knew they were going to shake hands. When I came down to hold the broom for Russ’s shots, I told Mike on the bench to grab the phone. He went into the locker room and grabbed it.

That was the first person I wanted to speak to after we won. The technology was there to do it. We hugged as a team, waved to my dad and wife up in the stands and then Mike threw me the phone.

That’s when an unforgettable phone call happened between Brad and Maureen.

Gushue is shown making his emotional phone call to his mom back in St. John's. (The Canadian Press) Gushue is shown making his emotional phone call to his mom back in St. John's. (The Canadian Press)
 

Maureen: That phone call was crazy. We were watching the game and this lady in Newfoundland called the house. She was probably in her 80s, had called to congratulate Brad and she wanted to talk to me. My sister-in-law had answered the phone and kept telling her 'Maureen can’t talk right now.'

Rainnie: It was a huge story about how Newfoundland and his mom were rallying behind him back home. As an east coaster myself, I know how proud Newfoundlanders are and how proud the east coasters are and this was a major story for Canada but a capital ‘M’ major story for the east coast of Canada.

He was absolutely stoic up until the last rock of the final game and then that’s when he tried to get in touch with his mom at home and as the story goes, and it’s really funny, she was waiting for his call and a neighbour called to congratulate her, as you do in Newfoundland. So he’s trying to get through on national TV and I believe he’s saying ‘mom, please pick up the phone.’

Brad: A real sweet lady called my mom and when we did a school tour a month later, she came and apologized for keeping my mom on the phone.

When I said, ‘mom pick up the phone’ on TV, she finally answered.

 

Maureen: We were watching the game and Brad was on TV saying ‘mom answer the phone, answer the phone.’ Finally [my sister] said ‘I have to go’ to the woman because Brad was trying to call his mom. That was the only way we got her to hang up.

I don’t really know if I said anything. I think I said congratulations. I can’t really remember because I was so upset at the time because I wasn’t there. I was so proud and so happy he had won though. He was upset at the time. The conversation was very short. I think I said ‘congratulations’ and ‘I love you.’

Brad: I said ‘we did it’ and then after that it was just tears. I could hear her crying and her emotion and then it just hit me. And all I could do was cry. It was just that connection and knowing she was on the line. It was a pretty cool moment.

Howard: I was right beside him when he pulled the phone out and I knew exactly who he was phoning. I think he broke down in the CBC interview. There was a lot of pressure there. All those kids performed so well. Brad handled all of that.

Gushue and Howard hug after winning the Olympic men's curling gold-medal final against Finland. (Reuters) Gushue and Howard hug after winning the Olympic men's curling gold-medal final against Finland. (Reuters)
 

Rainnie: He finally got through. They had a really short but really poignant conversation. I was close enough to not quite hear it, but I could feel it. As he walked over, obviously the first question had to be, and it had to be respectful, but it had to be ‘can you take us inside what just transpired between you and your mom?’

At that point the shield came down and the tear ducts opened and the weight of the moment, what he had done – and who he had done it for – hit him really hard.

I wanted to cover what [the win] meant for him. What it meant for his home province. What it meant for Canadian curling. You wanted to talk a little bit about how the game went, but the game was kind of anticlimactic.

Brad: I have a huge amount of respect for Bruce. Reporters in that situation could have taken it a million different ways but I thought he handled it with such class. I think it really kind of let the moment speak for itself. From a human perspective when the camera was off he was great. It’s something I feel connected to him over.

Rainnie: Somebody once described sport to me as drama without a script. And that’s it. You might have a sense of what’s going to happen. You might put money on what’s going to happen. You might make predictions. But you essentially have no idea what’s going to happen.

When you can feel those moments, and flow with those moments, and make sense of those moments, I think those are the moments that become magical and live forever.

Here was a young guy from Newfoundland, nowhere near the age of 30, who loved his mom more than anything, and had just won the biggest curling event in the world, and those two forces were combining in a way that was just so emotional for him and people back home. I was lucky enough to be the guy holding the mic.

From left to right, Mike Adam, Jamie Korab, Russ Howard, Mark Nichols, and Brad Gushue pose for photos after winning the Olympic men's curling gold-medal final.(Reuters) From left to right, Mike Adam, Jamie Korab, Russ Howard, Mark Nichols, and Brad Gushue pose for photos after winning the Olympic men's curling gold-medal final.(Reuters)
 

Now fully recovered, happy, and healthy, Maureen Gushue is looking forward to watching her son compete for a second time at an Olympic Games.

Maureen: We’ve been important to [Brad]. We’ve helped him with the kids. It’s been an amazing journey. We’ve done everything we could do to help him and we’ll continue to do that until he gives it up. He’s been so appreciative of what we’ve done as well. We’re really proud of him. 

It was a dream come true for all of us. He worked so hard at it. On his bedroom door he had all his dreams on what he wanted to do. To see him do it, I was really proud of him. He never missed a day that he didn’t call me during those Olympics. He was just happy that he had won. And he was happy I was OK. By the time that day had ended, I was totally exhausted.

Brad: It was a motivating factor for sure, to win for my mom. Unique things like that can spur people on. When I shifted my focus to her, it changed everything.

Howard: I was hired to be their coach, maybe mentor. And it was definitely reflective when we won it. They were 24 and 25 years old. They played beyond their age. Gushue had all these goals lined up for years. He had things on his lightswitch. He had it nailed down that in 2010 they were scheduled to win the Olympics. He fast-tracked.

It’s amazing at that young age he had that lofty goal. I’ve been lucky enough to represent my country at the worlds and it never crossed my mind there could be something better. And then the Olympics succeeds that ten-fold. I think I made nine trips to Newfoundland after we won for parties.

Brad: It was a unique time and team. It was lightning in a bottle. It was just such a special time. To see where we were before Russ came in, to where we ended up on top of the Olympic podium, was incredible.

Gushue and Howard pose with their Olympic gold medals. (Getty Images) Gushue and Howard pose with their Olympic gold medals. (Getty Images)
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