OTTAWA — Hometown curling hero Rachel Homan walked down the tunnel Friday, past the blue curtains and out onto the ice for the first time in preparation for the Canadian Olympic curling trials.
Upwards of 19,000 empty seats, bright lights and booming music cascaded down. Homan took a moment to breathe it all in. She grew up about 10 minutes from the Canadian Tire Centre.
“It’s a feeling I’ve never felt before,” she said. “Since we can remember we’ve been in these stands cheering on the Sens, coming to concerts, watching Gord Downie a few months ago. It’s a special venue.”
Now Homan and her rink from the Ottawa Curling Club are hoping to create curling magic in a place they know so well and they’ll have thousands of people cheering them on throughout the week.
“Family, friends so many people from the city are going to be here for all of the draws cheering us on. Having this opportunity is something we’ll never forget.”
18 teams, nine of each gender, are in set to take to the ice today as the Roar of the Rings gets underway. It’s a week of curling many regard as being the most competitive bonspiel in Canada once every four years. And the pressure can be paralyzing.
Gushue feeling free and calm
Brad Gushue is considered one of the heavy favourites to win this week. It was 12 years ago, as a 25-year-old, he played in his first Olympic trials, flying under the radar before he burst onto the national curling scene by winning the trials and Olympic gold in Italy.
Now all these years later, Gushue is back and is taking a completely different approach to it all, mostly because he’s won all there is to win in the sport.
“After we won the Brier and the worlds last year it was the monkey off the back,” Gushue said. “It really freed us up, at least me, and Mark would feel the same way. Now we can just put some icing on the cake and play with freedom.”
Gushue says the curling trials are pressure-packed to begin with. Then, he says, teams put it on this massive pedestal and if things start going sideways it can get off the rails in a hurry.
“They approach it bigger than any other event, which is not necessarily a good thing. Curlers change their bodies, the way they approach things and do things they normally wouldn’t do,” Gushue said.
“Generally that’s why you see teams that you expect do well, not do well.”
The team from St. John’s is coming off a dream season that saw them win their first Brier and then follow it up with a world championship title. Gushue says they spent the summer getting away from the game so they could come into this event focused and energized.
“We know if we play the way we’re capable of playing we’re going to be there at the end of the week. It doesn’t mean we’ll win but we’ll win some games and into the playoffs,” he said.
“Anything can happen. There have been a couple dark horses, me included, over the years. It just boils down to who’s playing well and who catches a couple breaks.”
Past champs channeling past magic
Jennifer Jones and Brad Jacobs are both back to defend their trials titles from four years ago in Winnipeg. They want to become the first Canadian teams to go back to the Olympics and also defend their gold.
Jones says it’s business as usual this week in Ottawa despite the stakes being the highest they’ve been since they last won it.
“It doesn’t feel like four years so I guess in a lot of ways it feels similar,” she said. “For us, nothing changes. It’s a good feeling and we’re excited to play.”
Jones is a five-time Canadian curling champion. She’s played in the big games. She is also very realistic about how competitive curling has become in Canada.
“It’s hard to make the playoffs at this event,” Jones said. “To be honest, you approach it the same as any other event, you just have to keep plugging away and hope you don’t have back-to-back losses.”
While it might feel similar for Jones, it couldn’t feel more different for Jacobs. His Northern Ontario team seemingly came out of nowhere four years ago to win the trials. Now, they won’t be off anyone’s radar and Jacobs is very okay with that.
“We’ve won this thing. We want to defend the title and make a ton of precision shots,” he said. “I’m pretty relaxed. Everyone on the team is relaxed.”
Jacobs echoes some of what Gushue said about keeping the nerves and stress at a minimum. He points to a conversation he had with Team Canada hockey coach Mike Babcock while preparing for competition in Sochi about how to handle expectations.
“He told us at the Olympics that we needed to stop worry about winning gold and the expectations and just focus on executing,” Jacobs said.
Saying it is one thing, doing it is another. Jacobs and 17 other teams begin their 2018 Olympic pursuit now. Only one men’s team and one women’s team get the right to wear the Maple Leaf in South Korea this coming February.
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