With less than four months to go before the Winter Games in South Korea, elite curlers across Canada are starting to feel the pressure as the Olympic trials in Ottawa near.
Many of the teams looking for that Olympic berth are in Lloydminster, Alta., this week competing in the Grand Slam of Curling’s Masters event. CBC-TV and CBCSports.ca will show the women’s quarter-finals on Saturday and the men’s final on Sunday, both at 1 p.m. ET.
The Olympic trials will be held Dec. 2-10 in Ottawa.
There’s a different level of intensity being brought to the ice as teams start to feel the Olympic pressure.
“The whole year is intense. Everything is shifted back because they need to peak in December at the trials. And then they have two months to get ready for the Olympics,” said Paul Webster, Curling Canada’s national development coach.
Webster will become an Olympic team leader once the Games start. He’s tracking the progress of the teams competing in Lloydminster and while he says winning bonspiels now is important for a team’s confidence, it’s not do-or-die yet.
“You need to go into the trials with confidence, but you can’t over-analyze a Slam event six weeks out from the trials if you don’t win [the Masters],” he said.
Canada has had podium performances on both the men’s and women’s side at every Games since curling became an official Olympic sport in 1998. Webster knows there are great expectations.
“As soon as we win gold at the Olympics, we’re trying to figure out how to do it again at the next Games,” he said. “It’s not like we’re sitting back with Scotch and cigars and resting on our laurels.”
Curling world catching up to Canada
Webster says despite both the Rachel Homan and Brad Gushue rinks going undefeated to win world championships last season, the rest of the curling world is catching up to Canada.
“I would love to say just ignore [the world championships],” Webster said. “If we don’t have our ducks in a row at the Olympics we can lose games. And lose badly.”
Webster is talking tough right now. This will be his fourth Olympics as a coach for Canada and he’s seen teams struggle at times. That’s why he’s applying pressure now and working with teams he believes could be wearing the Canadian flag at the Games.
“Curling Canada is never complacent. We’re always trying to figure out how to get to the podium.”
While there have been five Olympic gold medals from Canadian curling teams over the years, Webster says other countries have the capability to play with this country’s best on any given day.
“2018 is going to be an Olympics like no other. There’s confidence coming from Canadian curling but it’ll be a battle,” he said. “We need to do more because the rest of the world is coming for Canada.”
Olympic trials toughest test in curling
While Webster says the curling gap has closed, he still believes the reason Canadians excel on the international stage is because of how many quality teams there are in Canada competing in the trials.
“It’s the toughest event they’ll ever play in,” he said. “Those trials are going to be crazy. I think our trials is the best curling event to watch in the world.”
Webster says the team that represents Canada will have all the battle scars of great curlers to take on the rest of the world at the Olympics.
“If you win that, you’ve got every badge you’ve ever wanted coming out of one event,” he said. “If you look at yourself in the mirror having just won the Olympic trials, you have nothing to be scared about because you came out of the hardest event ever.”
At the December trials, nine men’s and nine women’s teams will compete for the two spots to represent Canada at the Olympics. Gushue and Homan are considered favourites at this point, but Webster warns it can change in a hurry due to the talent-filled draw.
“They’re all preparing to be at the Olympics. And they all have a serious chance of getting there.”