How Failure Forced Canada Into a Curling Reckoning
Disappointed. Demoralized. Dejected.
Those who were involved can remember the feelings that consumed them four years ago.
“It really made me shake my head: What do we need to do? How do we turn this around? This is not who we are!” Renee Sonnenberg recalled in a recent interview.
It was nothing short of a national emergency. The country? Canada. The crisis? Curling.
For Sonnenberg, a coach with the national team, and so many others in the Canadian curling community, this month’s Beijing Games are a fresh opportunity for a revival after the country’s humbling performance at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Canada, long the world’s most dominant force in curling, came away with a single, lonely medal.
“I probably spent the first year following that questioning whether I could have done something differently,” Sonnenberg said. “There’s a saying that you’re either winning or learning. And when we didn’t win, we had better learn from it.”
In Beijing, Canadian curlers are hopeful that they can apply some of those lessons — many have doubled down, for example, on the use of curling analytics (honest) — while recognizing that the sport’s global landscape has shifted.
“We won so much, and Canada had done so well, that we may not have been looking at areas where we could improve,” said Marc Kennedy, a three-time Olympian who is the alternate for the Canadian men’s team at the 2022 Games. “We thought we could stay with the status quo because it was working. But Pyeongchang forced us to look around and say, ‘What can we do better?’ Because honestly, the quality of international curling has gone through the roof.”
Heading into the 2018 Games, the Canadians had been a podium-topping colossus, having won medals in men’s and women’s curling at every Olympics since 1998, when the quirky ice sport played with brooms and granite rocks made its return to the Games. (Curling made a cameo at the 1924 Games in Chamonix, France, and returned sporadically in later years as a demonstration sport.)
Kennedy recalled being part of the four-person men’s team that won gold at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where he studied the draw before the competition and identified only two opponents he thought could possibly topple Canada.
“And that’s not trying to be cocky,” Kennedy said. “But we were almost on the podium before we got there. It was just a matter of which color medal we were going to get.”
More recently, though, rival countries have made significant investments in their curling programs, closing the gap on Canada. That much was clear four years ago.
“You can’t just slap a maple leaf on your back and be guaranteed a medal anymore,” said Paul Webster, Canada’s national development coach and its longtime Olympic team leader.
In Pyeongchang, the women’s team fell short of making the playoffs, and the men’s team lost in the bronze medal game to Switzerland. Canada’s only consolation was a gold medal in mixed doubles, an event that was making its Olympic debut and one that some curling purists consider a dilution of the sport.
Kennedy, who played for the men’s team in Pyeongchang, said he understood why fans back home were so upset.
“They’re passionate,” he said, “and when things don’t go well, they want to blow everything up. But that’s OK, because that means you’ve done something really good with your sport in the past, and you need to embrace that.”
Canadian officials were cagey about some of the specific changes they had made since Pyeongchang — “Every country thinks they’ve got the secret sauce,” Sonnenberg said — but players and coaches cited their growing acceptance of advanced analytics, going so far as to work with data scientists from Canadian Tire, a partner of the country’s Olympic committee.
“When do you take risks?” Sonnenberg asked. “How do you protect a lead when you hold an advantage? What tactics are you using? And then, on an individual level, what shots am I most successful at or least successful at? Where can I improve?”
There was also more of an emphasis on arranging ways to have members of elite teams in Canada — some of whom live far apart — get together for a few extra days before big competitions, like the events that comprise the Grand Slam of Curling. There was also a focus when they were together to ensure their workouts tended to be more targeted based on what their coaches had gleaned from analytics.
“If we have three two-hour sessions before our next Slam, where should we invest our time?” Sonnenberg said. “‘Here is what the numbers are saying. So let’s put our energy there.’”
In recent weeks, Sonnenberg has scoured YouTube and social media for footage of Canada’s Olympic competition while compiling scouting reports. Her reports, she said, are more thorough than they were in Pyeongchang.
“When I first started doing this, I could only handle sitting at my computer for like an hour before my brain felt full,” Sonnenberg said.
It is worth underscoring that Canada still has a smorgasbord of world-class curlers. Heading into Beijing, six of the top eight men’s teams in the world rankings were Canadian, as were two of the top three women’s teams. And neither of those women’s teams are in Beijing.
Why? Because while many countries, like Sweden, select their national teams well ahead of the Olympics and finance them year-round, Canada still has its enormous pool of elite curlers slug it out at its national trials, one of the world’s most daunting competitions.
Canada could follow other countries by handpicking its national team and foregoing the trials process. (Sweden, after all, was a force in Pyeongchang, where its women’s team won gold and its men took silver after losing to the United States.) But such a move would come at the expense of the sport’s popularity — and its very ethos — in Canada, where the Olympic dream runs through local, regional and provincial competitions.
“You’d lose a whole bunch of events, and participation would decrease,” Webster said.
As a result, Curling Canada, the sport’s national governing body, has continued to spread the wealth, providing financial assistance to six men’s teams and five women’s teams during the most recent Olympic cycle, Sonnenberg said.
“We can’t create one or two superpowers in Canada,” she said. “We want five or six great teams that push each other.”
Kennedy, who knows all about the highs and lows of Olympic competition, cautioned against the suggestion that Canadian curlers needed to reshape their entire approach. Four years ago, he said, the men’s team was a shot or two away from landing on the podium. There is simply more parity now, he said, though he sounded an optimistic note for Beijing.
“Our teams are pretty well prepared,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure things will work out.”