With mixed doubles, U.S. curlers could pull double duty at Olympics

With mixed doubles, U.S. curlers could pull double duty at Olympics

Matt and Becca Hamilton

What does Nina Roth think about potentially earning not one, but two Olympic curling medals for the U.S. at the 2018 Winter Olympics?

“That’s pretty freaking exciting.”

For the first time in curling history, players like Roth can potentially play in two separate tournaments at the same Olympics: the men’s or women’s divisions, and the new mixed doubles discipline.

In mixed doubles curling, teams consist of one man and one woman, games last eight ends with six stones for each team. One stone per team is prepositioned on the ice, one player throws the first and last rocks and the other player throws the second, third and fourth rocks. In traditional curling, teams are made of four players of the same gender, games last 10 ends with eight stones, all of which are thrown. 

Some countries, like curling powerhouse Canada, aren’t allowing their players to attempt both. After the rinks skipped by Kevin Koe and Rachel Homan won their Olympic berths in traditional men’s and women’s curling, their players had to drop out of the upcoming Canadian Olympic Trials for mixed doubles. That included Joanne Courtney, who won a silver medal with Reid Carruthers at the 2017 World Mixed Doubles Championships but will solely be playing second on Team Homan in PyeongChang.

But the U.S. players are welcoming the opportunity to pull double duty. Of the ten players already named to the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic curling team, seven will be playing at this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for mixed doubles in hopes of earning a second Olympic berth.

John Shuster, the skip of the men’s team who’ll be competing at his fourth Winter Games in 2018, didn’t hesitate when faced with the challenge of doing both.

“I’ve played at Olympic Games and I know it’s something I could handle,” he said at the Team USA WinterFest in November. “And I know that my teammates [on his men’s team] could do the same.”

The Olympic schedule for mixed doubles doesn’t overlap with that of the men’s or women’s tournament, but it also doesn’t leave much time off for players competing in both.

“Schedule-wise it’s going to be pretty nuts,” Tabitha Peterson said last week, as she prepared for the mixed doubles Olympic Trials, because a player competing in both tournaments “basically doesn’t have a day off.”

The mixed doubles tournament starts on Feb. 8 (the night of Feb. 7 in the U.S., due to the 13-hour time difference between the East Coast and South Korea), the day before the Opening Ceremony, and ends on Feb. 13. The men’s and women’s tournaments start the very next day, Feb. 14, and go until Feb. 22. The Closing Ceremony is on Sunday, Feb. 25.

If a player were to do both mixed doubles and either the men’s or women’s tournament, and got to the gold medal game in both, they’d be playing for 17 days straight.

Matt Hamilton, a member of Shuster’s four-man rink who plays mixed doubles with his sister, Becca, said he’s not daunted by the schedule.

“We play one to two games a day in most tournaments anyway,” he said, “and we’ve both played events that are ten days long, so we’re both up for it. We’re capable of it, we’re physically ready to do it.”

Instead of worrying about being exhausted when the mixed doubles wraps up and men’s curling begins, Matt sees advantages in getting extra time on Olympic ice.

“I’ll be on the ice before the rest of my team and I can give them advice on the rocks, or how the ice is running, little things that can help the team,” he said. “If you take the positives and look at the good sides, I feel like there are a lot more good things that can happen than bad when you think about playing early.”

Besides Roth, Shuster, Peterson and the Hamilton siblings, the other curlers who could potentially win two Olympic medals in PyeongChang are Corey Christensen and Joe Polo. Christensen and Polo are the alternates on the men’s and women’s team, so they will be by their teammates’ sides in the traditional Olympic curling games but may not actually play. But alternates are considered such an integral part of a curling team that if their squad proves to be podium-worthy, they’ll receive a medal too—even if they didn’t throw a single stone in the entire tournament.  

The Hamiltons are going into the mixed doubles Olympic Trials as the reigning national champions and the top-seeded team. They finished tenth at the 2017 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships, and will face stiff competition from the number-two seeds, Peterson and Polo, who won bronze at the 2016 Mixed Doubles Worlds.

Roth and her partner, Kroy Nernberger—who happens to be Matt Hamilton’s boss—are seeded third. And Shuster and Christensen were discretionary picks to play at Trials, but Shuster has an Olympic Trials winning streak going back to 2006.

Then there are mixed doubles pairs like Jamie Sinclair and Korey Dropkin. Both of them played on teams that made it to the finals at the men’s and women’s curling U.S. Olympic Trials, and lost. This is their last chance to make their Olympic dreams come true in 2018.

For the Hamiltons, they say that already knowing they’ll both in PyeongChang won’t prevent them from playing their hardest at the mixed doubles Trials.

“The fact that both my brother and I are already going to be going to the Olympics took off a little bit of pressure,” Becca said, “but we’re still pretty competitive people so we’re always looking for the win, obviously.”

Matt said he “dreaded the idea” of only one of them qualifying with their four-person teams.

He didn’t want them to be playing be at the mixed doubles Olympic Trials together and have one sibling potentially thinking, “’Is my brother playing as hard because he’s in?’ or ‘Is my sister playing as hard because she’s already in?’ I didn’t even want that grain of truth that could be there, I didn’t even want to humor that idea unless it was a reality. And thankfully we both did.”

Echoing his sister’s words, Matt added, “I think there is a little less pressure on us but still, we’re still very competitive people. We don’t want to lose.”

None of the players want to give up the opportunity to make history by playing in the first ever Olympic mixed doubles curling tournament.  

“Because it’s so new, it would be really exciting to get the opportunity to play in a different environment,” Peterson said.

Becca explained that for her, the opportunity to play not only in the same arena but also on the same curling sheet as her brother would make PyeongChang extra special. “Because it is a first-year Olympic sport, it’s never been done to have a curler in two events and to do that with my brother would be awesome,” she said.

And if the U.S. mixed doubles team that comes out on top at the Olympic Trials also makes the podium at the Winter Games, they’ll be the first U.S. Olympic medalists in curling since 2006. 

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