OTTAWA — It’s almost hard to fathom that this is only the second Olympic curling trials for Brad Gushue.
His first one came 12 years ago. The then 25-year-old from St. John’s caught everyone off guard, going on an improbable run to win the tournament and then capture gold in Italy along with Mark Nichols, Russ Howard and Jamie Korab.
After five games at the 2005 trials in Halifax, Gushue’s record was 4-1. Through five games in Ottawa this week, he’s 3-2.
Gushue and his current teammates — Nichols, Brett Gallant and Geoff Walker — were considered the favourites coming into this event. Ranked No. 1 in the world and off to a strong start this season after winning the Brier and world titles last season, they were seemingly invincible.
But as so many curlers will tell you, things can change in a hurry at the trials. And it did for the Gushue team early on. They were upset in their first game, against John Epping. Then it took an extra end to defeat Brendan Bottcher in their second game.
Gushue thought the win would get the team on a roll, and that seemed to be the case when they went on to defeat John Morris.
Then disaster struck.
In his showdown with reigning Olympic champion Brad Jacobs, Gushue experienced what he called the worst picked rock of his career. Debris on the ice caused his throw to careen badly off line, giving Jacobs a steal of three and a 4-0 lead early in the game. Gushue couldn’t recover and wound up losing 7-4.
“In the past we would have hit the panic button,” Gushue says.
But his team, seasoned by years of big games, tough losses and thrilling wins, was able to keep things in perspective.
“We had a good meeting after the loss,” Nichols says. “I thought we played an unbelievable game except for that one picked shot.”
The team had an entire day before its next game to think about what might have been had it not have been for that pick. The break seemed to help as, on Tuesday night, the Gushue rink looked as focused as ever in defeating Reid Carruthers’s team 9-5 to improve its record to 3-2.
In that win, Gushue made three or four game-saving shots, including a game-ending precision shot shot to score four in the ninth end.
When Gushue is dialed in and on a roll, he’s hard to beat. He believes he’s close to being back in that place.
“I still think we have to clean some stuff up,” he says. “But for myself, personally, I felt it.”
Ice conditions changed dramatically throughout the day on Tuesday. The weather in Ottawa warmed up and it was raining, causing humid conditions in the arena. Curlers had a difficult time navigating the changes, but Gushue says his team is “the best in the world” when it comes to picking up on things like frost buildup and changing ice.
“We stay patient, we don’t get frustrated and I think we communicate better than most teams and figure out paths,” he says.
His longtime friend and teammate Nichols agrees.
“I find our team probably deals as good or better than any when conditions are tough,” he says. “It’s a level of maturity and experience.”
With a 3-2 record and massive games on the schedule ahead, Gushue knows his team is walking a fine line. They were in third place heading into Wednesday night’s matchup with Mike McEwen (4-1).
“We feel our backs are against the wall,” he says. “Having said that, it’s in our own hands too.”
While they feel the pressure, they’re also not giving up on first place in the round robin. They’ll need to finish strong in their final three games to catch McEwen and Kevin Koe (5-0).
But Gushue and his teammates have been in this spot before and wound up on the winning side. Nichols feels that experience could be the difference.
“We don’t have to worry about what anyone else. We don’t have to hope for help,” he says. “Just play our game and get wins.”
The first-place team after the round robin gets a direct entry into Sunday’s final. The second- and third-place teams play in Saturday’s semifinal, with the winner moving onto the final to play for a spot in the Winter Olympics.
Gushue faces McEwen, Steve Laycock and Koe to finish the round robin. That Friday night game again Koe has the potential to be a first-place showdown.
Gushue says he has “a lot of confidence in our team.”
“If we get to the level we’re capable of playing, we’ll be there at the end of the week.”