Future of US Olympic Curling at Serious Crossroad After Disastrous Sochi Result

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterFebruary 17, 2014

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We've come to bury United States curling, not to praise it.

Truth be told, there isn't much to praise about the combined effort for the American men's and women's curling teams during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Of the 18 combined games played, the United States won just three.

The men's team, led by skip John Shuster for a second straight Olympics, won just two of their nine matches. The women's team, led by skip Erika Brown and vice skip Debbie McCormick, who led the 2010 squad in Vancouver, won just one match in Sochi, being outscored 77-40 in the tournament.

Shuster spoke with NBC's Trenni Kusnierek after the team's final game in Sochi and was asked if he is disappointed to return to the Winter Games and put up such a poor result.

"I think I have a different perspective on the Olympics, honestly. If you can come here and prepare as hard as you can prepare and not leave anything on the table and compete with everything you have—that's something I think our team did—I'm proud to be an Olympian. It's obviously a bummer that the week went the way it did."

A bummer indeed.

Over the last two Olympic Games, curling has gone from something of a lark for many of us who followed the competition online to a sport that has grown immensely in popularity among the Winter Olympic events. The success of Team USA has not matched that interest, losing 29 of 36 combined games between the 2010 and 2014 Games. You don't need to know anything about curling to know that seven wins in 36 games is horrible. It's horrible.

Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

That number is so horrible that much of the talk around the Olympic curling competition as the round-robin sessions came to a close has been about what to do with the future of the sport in America.

Andrew Catalon and John Benton, who have called the tournament for NBC, spent the entire end of Team USA's 6-3 loss to Switzerland discussing how the United States can develop a program that's more competitive on the world stage.

Benton, who has competed in the Olympics in the past and is now a coach in the USA Curling program, had some very candid thoughts during the USA telecast:

"Curling came up out of very social roots. It was a social game. It wasn't a high-performance sport to begin with. So this transition as it's become very popular in the Olympics has been a tough one and a painful one for a lot of countries to figure out how important winning medals is versus grassroots development and keeping people involved in the game.

It's not an easy question. It's one that I've spent a lot of time thinking about and I don't know that I have the answer, but I know that as long as we're an Olympic sport, you don't come here to socialize. You come here to win medals."

It is fascinating to watch this sport, or really any sport, transform in front of our eyes. The United States curling program needs a systematic change of philosophy, and those at the highest level are openly wondering how making that change would impact the entire sport.

NBC continued the conversation about the state of curling after the American men lost their final match—one of several this week they had a serious chance to win despite falling behind early—dedicating 10 full minutes, which felt like an eternity in television time, talking about the future of the sport in this country.

The discussion was amazing.

That conversation could be about any number of Olympic sports, but it's particularly fascinating given how popular curling has become over the last eight years in America.

Not only is there more interest in curling during the Olympics, but the popularity of the event in Vancouver led to an enormous increase in participation and interest at local curling clubs around America. Four years later, we are still far behind the other competing nations, and something has to give to ensure the popularity doesn't wane in four years' time.

The question for USA Curling, and the one posed several times by the NBC crew, is how you change the system without changing the enjoyment of the sport for those already involved. Curling is a very communal sport, where players get together with friends to just have a good time. The best groups of friends—in terms of curling quality, not in terms of friendships per se—end up competing at the national level, with the top few teams of that relatively elite American group going on to international competitions.

There are no All-Star teams in curling. This would be like sending the Knicks to the Olympics to represent America in basketball.

We're rooting for the Knicks of curling, folks.

Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

The issue for curling aficionados is that sending All-Star teams would change the very dynamic of what makes the sport so much fun to play. It wouldn't be about the community anymore. It would be about winning.

Pete Fenson, who won a bronze medal at the 2006 Games in Turin, said during the telecast that it may be possible for USA Curling to have both.

"One of the only sports that I know of where the teams are self-formed and self-governing is curling. That's the way I've always played the game and that's the way we've all always done it, but maybe that's not the best way to do it. In every other sport that we know, the coach runs the team, selects the team and chooses the lineup. Maybe that's something that needs to be looked at.

I hear a lot from people who aren't happy with change is that it will stunt growth in the U.S. But the one thing they don't understand is that a high-performance program isn't necessarily about growth."

Benton echoed that point as well after the match, talking with Catalon about the growth of the sport and how that may be impacted by a more concerted effort toward success in the international competitions.

"I like what Pete said there. High performance is not necessarily about growth. As I think about it more, if we separate the two goals, and success at a high level becomes its own goal, if growth happens because of that, that's a great thing. But it doesn't need to be primary to what we do in high performance."

In other words, sending an All-Star team to the Olympics should have little impact on local enjoyment. Creating the structure to find the best players in an attempt to cultivate and prepare that talent for top-level competition should have no bearing on the fun and interest people in the sport currently share.

If you are the best skip at your local club, it doesn't mean you can't continue to play with your buddies. But if you want to make it to the Olympics, you're not bringing those schlubs along with you anymore.

Carmelo Anthony can represent the Knicks in the Olympics, but he's not going there with Raymond Felton and Cole Aldrich.

More to the larger point of the discussion, curling has come to a crossroads in America, where the sport has become popular enough during the Olympics that we actually get angry when our teams don't perform. In some sports, it's just nice to be there—nobody gets mad when the United States fails to medal in ski jumping or the doubles luge—but there seems to be this visceral reaction to when the curling team loses.

Wong Maye-E/Associated Press

Why? Well, part of that is because we've been on this journey with the same characters before. Part of that is because the sport lends itself to armchair curlers thinking they can do better.

We probably can't, but the great thing about curling is that, unlike the ski jump or doubles luge, it's not that hard to try. The sport is wildly accessible in America these days and, truth be told, you could go to your local club to train like mad and get good enough in four years to make the Olympic team.

Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers has been one of the many professional athletes who has caught the curling buzz, traveling to Vancouver and again to Sochi, and even being named honorary captain of the team.

Asked by Al Michaels on Monday on NBCSN if he might give a more serious look at curling in the future, even so far as to compete for a spot at the 2018 Olympics, Davis said, "the sky is the limit. Anything is possible. You know what, I think I will. I think I will. I enjoy it."

Now all we need to do is find three more people to join Davis in four years. For a sport at the point of significant change, the opportunity to find them should be here soon.


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