BEMIDJI – With only four days to go until the Olympic trials, Pete Fenson unlocked the doors at the Bemidji Curling Club and sprayed water over a fresh sheet of ice. The building just off Paul Bunyan Drive lay empty and silent at 10 a.m., leaving the 2006 Olympic bronze medalist to practice his craft in solitude.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Fenson methodically slid 64 rocks down the ice, perfecting the form that has made him one of the most successful curlers in U.S. history. He looked as cool as he had the night before, when even a 500-degree pizza oven couldn’t make him sweat. Outside the rink, the Bemidji native is caretaker to a slice of hometown history, kneading dough and taking orders at 55-year-old Dave’s Pizza. This week, he will take a break to pursue another, when his team competes at the trials in Fargo, N.D., for a berth in the 2014 Olympics.
Fenson and his wife, Roxanne, bought the popular pizzeria in 1996. Save for a few nods to modernity—such as a gluten-free option and a handful of exotic toppings—they have continued to make Dave’s Pizza the same way it has been made since 1958. That consistency extends to Fenson’s curling team, too; in a game in which rosters change frequently, two of his three teammates have stuck with the skip for a decade or more, helping him build a résumé that includes seven national championships.
In some sports, training for and competing in the Olympics can be a lucrative full-time profession. Curling, which didn’t join the Winter Games program until 1998, remains largely the province of teachers, accountants, bartenders and nurses who must strike a balance between their careers and their sporting ambitions.
Fenson does it with the help of his wife and two teenage sons, who also work at the restaurant, and a staff of 15 that makes sure everything runs smoothly when Fenson is away. With their help, he can have his pie and eat it, too, chasing a second Olympic berth while keeping Bemidji supplied with its pepperoni-and-extra-cheese fix.
“I’m fortunate to have a career where I’ve never thought, ‘I have to go to work today,’ ’’ said Fenson, skip of the only American team to win an Olympic medal in curling. “And I’m fortunate to have great people here, so when I’m competing, I can focus on curling. It’s a team effort.’’
That goes for the crew on the ice and the crew in the kitchen.
“I like to tell people, ‘My boss is a bronze medal Olympian,’ ’’ said assistant manager Eric Sundem, who has worked at Dave’s Pizza for 8½ years. “How many people can say that?’’
Fenson, 45, said he began eating Dave’s Pizza as soon as his teeth came in. His curling roots go back even further. The Bemidji Curling Club provides evidence of that in the banners hanging along its walls, with six Fensons — including parents Bob and Jan, brother Eric, son Alex and uncle Tom — represented among the 79 state champions and 31 national champions the club has produced.
On the ice, Fenson is known as a superb shotmaker and a steady, highly focused leader. Shawn Rojeski of Chisholm has been part of his team for 15 years, and Joe Polo of Duluth has been a member for 10 years. Their success, Rojeski said, is based in their friendship, trust and comfort with each other—and in Fenson’s ability to bring out their best.
“Pete has the ability to stay calm in all situations, which is a big part of it,’’ Rojeski said. “We’ve been together so long that we can be relaxed, because we’re very comfortable with our skills. And we have confidence in his ability to make shots.’’
Rojeski and Polo work for a construction firm, and the fourth member of the team, Ryan Brunt, is a substitute teacher. Like many elite curling teams, they all live in different cities. They train on their own, fitting in workouts around work and family, and gather occasionally for tournaments or practices.
Last Wednesday, Fenson arrived at the restaurant at 1 p.m. to prepare for an evening of dinner service, carryout orders and deliveries. He typically works out in the mornings, doing biking, running, weightlifting and swimming to build the endurance and flexibility his sport requires. On-ice practices begin once the club installs its ice in the early fall; as the trials draw closer, Fenson has been at the rink every day.
At the restaurant—named for original owner Dave Masucci—he spends as much as 10 hours a day, doing everything from waiting tables to baking pizzas to cleaning up. Alex, 18, whose team won the U.S. junior curling championship last spring, is a delivery driver and cook; Graem, 14, runs the cash register. Before the curling season starts, the managers check Fenson’s competition calendar and divide tasks to ensure nothing is overlooked when the boss is out of town.
The restaurant makes a few nods to Fenson’s other vocation. In a corner of the back dining room hangs a poster from the 2006 Winter Olympics, along with plaques commemorating two of his national titles and a photo of his team competing in Turin. Fenson also incorporated curling terminology into a slogan on the Dave’s Pizza website—“From our house to yours, the Pizza Man delivers!’’— a play on words that is clearly understood in a town that bills itself as the curling capital of the U.S.
After his team won the bronze medal, Fenson said, business increased at the restaurant, and some people wanted him to sign pizza boxes as souvenirs. Most of his staff doesn’t curl, but they don’t lack for information on his tournament results.
“We have so many people coming in who follow him,’’ Sundem said. “They always let us know how he’s doing.’’
Natalie Nicholson, a Bemidji native and 2010 Olympian in women’s curling, said there is considerable local pride in Team Fenson’s achievements.
“Everyone in Bemidji is so proud of them,’’ said Nicholson, who also will compete at the trials. “What they’ve done is a testament to their hard work. Pete and his team are always reflecting on what they can improve on; they don’t leave any piece out. They’ve shown people we can grow elite athletes here.’’
Fenson already is working on growing the next generation. Alex’s team competed in the world junior championships last spring, at the Olympic venue in Sochi, and Pete made the trip with him.
This week, Sundem and company will keep the pizza ovens going while Fenson tries to earn the chance to compete in Sochi himself. His team has played in five tournaments to prepare for the challenge of the Olympic trials, where five teams square off in a grueling week of play that culminates in a best-of-three finals. By the end, the pizza man hopes to deliver another title to Bemidji.
“We know we have to play great,’’ Fenson said. “But the bigger the game, the better we like it. We’ve all worked hard for this. We’re ready.’’