With 100 days to go until the Winter Olympics and the Canadian curling trials drawing near, Brad Gushue can consider the winding path he’s travelled to get to this point.
“I never envisioned the way the last 11 years would go,” says the favourite to represent Canada in the men’s tournament in Pyeongchang, South Korea. “I could never have imagined there would be the swings of winning the Olympics to thinking of quitting to being one of the best teams in the world again.”
It was back in 2006 that Gushue reached the pinnacle of his sport at just 25 years old, capturing gold at the Olympics in Turin, Italy. He was young, on top of the world and thought winning would come easy.
“It’s the most proud moment you’re ever going to have,” he says.
Euphoric as that victory was, though, someone was missing inside the arena that day. Brad mom’s, Maureen, had been diagnosed with cancer in the lead-up to the Games, forcing her to watch her son’s biggest moment on TV back at home in St. John’s.
“Probably two weeks before we left she had to go back into the hospital and it was determined it wasn’t in her best interest to go over there,” Gushue says.
So when Gushue’s team scored six points in the sixth end to blow open the gold-medal game against Finland, he put plans in place to ensure he had a cell phone ready to call home the moment it ended.
After his team secured Canada’s first-ever Olympic men’s curling gold with an eight-end rout, TV cameras captured an indelible moment — Gushue telling his mom to pick up the phone as it rang back home in St. John’s.
Maureen finally answered.
“Hi,” Gushue said, his voice cracking. “We did it, mom.”
They both could barely talk, but they were connected and celebrating together. Gushue made his mom feel she was right there with him and his family in that golden moment.
“She was supposed to be there with us,” he says. “I wanted to make her feel as much a part of it as what my dad and my wife and I were experiencing.”
As disappointed as Gushue was that Maureen couldn’t be there, he figured there would be many more of those golden moments for them to enjoy in the years that followed.
“I thought we were going to win a bunch of Briers and have a ton of success. But obviously life changes and teams change.”
After the fall
In the years that followed the Olympic win, Gushue’s teammates shuffled in and out as he tried to recapture that golden-caliber chemistry. He consistently qualified for Briers (he hasn’t missed one since 2006) but couldn’t quite capture that elusive national championship.
Gushue came close in 2007, making it to the final with three quarters of the team that won gold at the Olympics (Chris Schille had replaced the legendary Russ Howard, who was instrumental to the Olympic victory, at second). But when Gushue gave up a steal of two in the seventh end against Ontario’s Glenn Howard, Russ’s younger brother, his fate was sealed. He lost 10-6 and wouldn’t make it back to another Brier title game until 2016. He lost that one too.
It was a fall — a face plant, really — during a Grand Slam event in October 2015 that led to what Gushue calls “the toughest 14 months of my curling career.”
During the fourth end of a tournament in Truro, N.S., Gushue was calling the line in the rings for his third, Mark Nichols, when he attempted to move out of the way of the rocks. He lost his footing and smashed his face on the ice, opening up a nasty cut.
He was rushed to hospital, stitched up and returned to the game. But the effects of the concussion he suffered lingered long into the season, even as he continued to compete on the Grand Slam circuit and made his second run to the final of the Brier in Ottawa in 2016.
A frustrating hip/groin injury followed, leading to what Gushue described as “eight months of not knowing when I would throw another rock.”
But he was able to regain his health — and pick up some wisdom in the process.
“Up until that fall, the only thing that provided some perspective was when my mom got sick. Curling was everything,” Gushue says.
Maureen’s battle with cancer had marked a turning point for the hyper-driven Gushue. His laser-like focus, obsessive need for perfection and stubbornness had paid off on the ice but, for the first time, he realized there might be more to life than curling — something he fully understands now.
“I’ve matured, got married and had kids, started running a business,” he says. “[Curling] isn’t my whole life now.”
His time away from the game gave Gushue even more perspective, completing his transformation from, has he puts it, “being the protégé to being a teacher.”
“It has been a huge adjustment for me and it seemed to just happen overnight,” Gushue says. “I think it’s made me grow as an athlete, as a person and in every way possible.”
Still, something was missing in his career.
Bringing it all back home
As he played (and came up short) in all those Briers, year after year, Gushue lobbied both his hometown and Curling Canada to bring the country’s biggest men’s bonspiel back to Newfoundland for the first time since 1972. He wanted to win it in front of his family, his friends and everyone in St. John’s.
He finally got the chance in March of 2017, and what transpired is something Gushue still has a hard time wrapping his mind around.
With the Mile One Centre sold out for every one of his games and the pressure dialed up in front of a raucous crowd, Gushue delivered a clutch final-rock victory over defending champ Kevin Koe in the championship game, capturing his first Brier title in 14 tries.
With the win, Gushue, Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker also captured the first Brier Tankard for their province since 1976, giving Newfoundland and Labrador the same spark Gushue’s Olympic win did all those years ago.
“I think there are moments when it sinks in, especially when someone comes up and lets me know how they felt during that Brier final or during the week,” Gushue says.
The party spilled across the street into the Brier Patch and late into the night. People of all ages roared as the team finally arrived with the Tankard. Gushue even passed the trophy to the fans and watched as it crowd-surfed across the room.
The once overly serious skip basked in the moment.
“To win the Brier is an honour, but to have won it at home under that pressure is something I don’t think we’ll be able to match in our curling career,” he says.
The victory was even sweeter for Gushue because all those tough losses leading up to it gave him the perspective needed to fully appreciate it.
“The adversity we’ve had over the last 10 years while trying to find that perfect chemistry, it was hard. We had a lot of low points,” he says. “Then to overcome injuries and win it at home made it that much more special.”
Gushue and his rink followed up their Brier win by becoming the first men’s team to go undefeated at the world championship since the tournament expanded to 12 teams. Their 13-0 run in Edmonton also made Gushue the only skip ever to collect the world junior, Olympic, Brier and world titles.
One more time
If Gushue was considered an underdog when he last won the Canadian Olympic trials, in 2005, it couldn’t be more different this year. After going undefeated in winning each of the season’s first two Slams, he’s the man to beat in December in Ottawa. And he isn’t shy about his intentions.
“After we won the Brier at home, my focus shifted to the Olympics. That is my number one goal,” Gushue says.
And while getting the chance to play for another Olympic gold medal is motivation enough, Gushue says he also wants to get back to the Games so his mom can be there in the stands this time around.
“I’d love to have that opportunity for her to experience it with me. I’d love us all to be there with my kids now too to experience.”
Gushue feels he’s playing with house money now. He’s not gripping the rock as hard as he used to. He’s finding enjoyment in a game he once thought was only about winning.
“I think if I got back [to the Olympics] I’d embrace this one more,” he says. “Obviously we’d be as prepared as possible, but I think we’d enjoy the entire experience.”