It's every Canadian curler's dream to grow up and put on the Maple Leaf at an international event. After all, it usually means a podium finish.
The expectations placed upon Canada's curlers are immense, nearly suffocating at times. Just ask any curler who's ever risen from the pebbled ice to granite stardom in this country.
Canada's curling fans are passionate. They'll support their teams until the last rock is thrown. They've been spoiled over the years, too. Canada has historically dominated the roaring game. Like hockey, the mindset when it comes to Canadian curlers at an international event is gold or bust.
But as both sports have grown, so has the level of international competition.
So what happens when it doesn't go according to plan? Skip Chelsea Carey is struggling to make the playoffs at the women's world championships in Denmark, and neither the men nor women won a medal at last year's Olympics in Pyeongchang. (Canada's mixed doubles team, in the event's first appearance at an Olympics, did win gold.)
"The pressure of the Maple Leaf and from fans is an amazing thing, except when things go south," says six-time Scotties winner Colleen Jones. "Then the weight is so big it rings through your ears and you feel it all over your body. It was all a privilege [to represent Canada], but sometimes hard."
Even the great Colleen Jones received harsh criticism when she didn’t win. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
One of the best-ever to play the game, Jones says she had to learn the hard way early in her career of the high expectations placed on curlers.
"My first harsh lesson of losing was the worlds in Geneva in 1982," Jones said..
Jones had just won her first Scotties alongside her sisters at age 22 (still the youngest ever to do so). As she departed for the world championships it seemed all her curling dreams were coming true.
And then they didn't. Not that year.
The ice conditions were atrocious. The arena was filled with windows and a bright sun beamed in, melting the ice in spots. The surface was sloped. It was unlike anything Jones had curled on. She failed to qualify for the playoffs, losing a tiebreaker to Norway.
"It was crushing because I was so young and didn't know what I didn't know yet and didn't fully appreciate that the game has a way of beating you and keeping you humble," Jones says.
WATCH | Carey gets critical win over China:
Chelsea Carey scored a triple in the ninth end, as Canada (4-4) beat China 8-7 at the world women's curling championship in Silkeborg, Denmark. 0:42
Jones then competed for a world title 17 years later. In Canada, no less. But Jones missed the playoffs with a 4-5 record, the last time Canada has failed to reach the playoffs at the women's world curling championships.
"The enormity of having the Maple Leaf on my back made me spiral into a swirling mess of thoughts and emotions that just kept going around in a circle of negativity and fear," Jones says.
And then came the hate mail. This was before social media, when fans can quickly spew their venom in a few clicks. Jones received hand-written letters from across Canada, to her home and the curling club.
"They said I was an embarrassment to Canada and should never curl again," she says. "It was so personal because they were taking the time to send these letters. Even paid for a stamp. But they were always anonymous."
Compassion for Chelsea Carey
The pressure, fear and negativity are something Chelsea Carey must be battling, says Jones. Team Canada's skip at this year's world championship is sitting with a 4-4 record after eight games. A low point came Tuesday in Denmark when Carey's team gave up 10 unanswered points to lose to the Americans 13-6.
Disgruntled fans took to social media after that game.
"It hurts. One of our toughest days in curling. We feel as bad about our result as our fans," the post on Twitter read from the team's account.
Fans also took to social media. A firestorm of negativity blazed across Twitter — expressing similar sentiments aimed at Jones all those years ago — saying the team was an embarrassment to Canada and shouldn't be there.
Jones knows exactly what the team is feeling right now.
"Watching Chelsea and the gang turns my stomach into knots and my right shoulder aches with a hurt that is still in my bones. It's like what is happening to Chelsea are my losses all over again," Jones says. "I've walked a hundred miles in her shoes, maybe more."
Jones would finally win a world curling championship for Canada — she would finish her career with two. She thought it would be an awesome moment in her life.
"They weren't as joyous as I thought, just simply a big relief that we didn't lose. How strange is that?" she asks.
Brent Laing also knows what Carey is experiencing .
He was at the Olympics last year on Kevin Koe's team, which failed to reach the for Canada. It marked the first time both Canadian men's and women's curling teams had failed to win a medal at the Games in curling.
Prior to that experience, Laing had won only gold at international events — in all three world championships he played.
"I wish we could play the Olympics over again. It sucks when you don't perform for Canada," Laing says. "Last year was a totally different experience and it sucked."
Both Koe's team and Rachel Homan's women's rink were on the receiving end of Canadian curling fans' wrath throughout the Olympics.
Laing did his best to ignore it all.
"What someone on Twitter says about me who I will probably never meet doesn't mean that much to me," he says.
Jennifer Jones, Laing's wife, is also a six-time Scotties champion. She's won the world curling championship twice, including going undefeated last year.
"There's obviously a lot of pressure, but all that pressure makes playing for Canada so special because there's so much pride," Jones says.
Jones has been watching closely as Carey competes in Denmark. Jones' longtime second, Jill Officer, who retired from curling last season, is the alternate on Carey's team.
"My heart breaks for them right now. They're trying their best. We always are. It's a dream come true to get there and you want to fulfil it in the most amazing way. But it's sport," Jones says.
Criticism taken to a different level in curling
Al Cameron, a longtime sports journalist and Curling Canada's director of media relations, says what he's reading on social media right now regarding Canada's performance at this year's world championship isn't unique to curling, but he's shocked at the level of negativity.
"I do believe curling fans take it to another level compared to other sports in Canada — again, a byproduct of Canada's status as a curling nation," Cameron says.
Cameron is in Denmark with Carey's team. He's in those post-game scrums after their victories and defeats. He also sees them out of the bright lights of the interview circle.
"The expectations — they're all very aware of them, and they also know that in this day and age, if they don't achieve those expectations, the conversation is certainly taking place around them and about them," he says.
Cameron says the expectations at some point have to be tempered with the reality of competitive curling in this day and age — not to mention some big-picture thinking.
"Canada has won the past two world women's championships with unbeaten records. Is it fair to expect every single team we send to the world championship to do that? Of course not."
As for those who choose to anonymously lash out at Canada's curlers in times of disappointment, Cameron doesn't have much time for them.
"I don't think most of these people would say these kind of words in public, or even to their close friends. But somehow they believe it's okay to do it when nobody knows who they are," he says.
"When I see people show this lack of compassion and respect for our athletes, it's tough. And then add into the mix that I truly like our athletes and coaches. These are friends whom I thoroughly respect and admire, and it's a punch in the gut to see them treated like that."
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