The art of curling has changed. The robots are passing Canada by
Krista McCarville’s Northern Ontario rink, just like every other one competing at the Canadian Olympic curling trials in Saskatoon, is hoping to represent Canada at the Beijing Olympics. But how her team got there is a little unusual.
They spend most of the time they have to curl in training, not in competition as is the norm in Canada. And because of all that training back in Thunder Bay, she only has to read the ice once during these high-pressure games at the SaskTel Centre.
McCarville, Kendra Lilly, Ashley Sippala and Sarah Potts have spent years tamping down their natural curling styles to ensure they slide on the same line of delivery, release the stone the same way and apply the same rotation.
This is how they’ve made it to this stage, alongside Canada’s very best, while competing only about a fifth as often as the top teams, says their coach, Rick Lang.
Using focused team training to create and maintain the exact same curling technique, or as close to it as humanly possible, is something that’s increasingly being done in other countries — including the ones that are beating Canada on the world stage.
But it’s still rare among teams here, says Lang, the two-time world champion who was a long-time national team coach for Curling Canada. It’s controversial, too. In fact, when Lang talks about this he’s sometimes accused of wanting to turn curlers into robots.
“I’m not talking about making robots out of them,” Lang says. “Sometimes I’m interpreted that way. I call them artists. We have a lot of teams in Canada that are artists. They make shots, but they kind of do it in their own way.
“But the game has changed to the point now where the technical level is so high and precise that if you don’t do this you’re going to get beat.”
That’s already happening more often than Canadian curlers would like, especially on the most important global stages: the Olympics and the worlds.
Canada left the 2018 Olympics without a men’s or women’s curling medal for the first time since the sport was included in 1998. (Canada did win gold in the debut of the mixed doubles event.) They also missed the podium at the world championships this year.
McCarville and her teammates, who made a decision years ago to put their jobs — she’s an elementary school teacher — and families first, are considered underdogs at the Olympic trials, which run until Nov. 28. But the fact that they’re there and as good as they are, with so little competition, is the result of years of training to increase their curling symmetry, she says.
“I can put the broom down for myself and the exact same ice for Ashley, Sarah, Kendra,” says McCarville. “It makes my life a thousand times easier.”
Kerri Einarson’s Manitoba rink approaches things in a more typically Canadian way. They often practise individually because of work and family commitments; they compete a lot, which keeps their points ranking high and sponsors happy; and they gather to train a day or two before big events such as the trials.
“We each have our own individual style, which makes it a little more difficult for me,” Einarson says. “But as long as they’re consistent with it, I can just remember who I have to give a little more ice to, who I don’t. Not everyone’s going to be structured the exact same and throw the exact same thing.”
But that is what’s happening on top teams in other nations, says Curling Canada’s high performance director Gerry Peckham.
Countries in Asia and Europe that don’t have the same history and depth of talent are selecting curlers — rather than having teams earn their way to the top, as Canada does — and training them full-time in high-performance hubs with Olympic podium performances specifically in mind.
“When you bear witness to the technical excellence of the Asian teams, you marvel at it,” Peckham says. “They’re just so precise and so biomechanically sound.”
In many sports the training-to-competition ratio is around 90 per cent to 10 per cent, but few curling teams in Canada would even hit the 50/50 mark, Lang says: “The culture in Canada is that you get better by playing a lot.”