SOCHI, RUSSIA – There would be no rushing her, no pressure to force a commitment. After what happened to Debbie McCormick at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Erika Brown knew she had to let the heartache run its course.
McCormick skipped the U.S. women’s team to a 2-7 finish and last place in the 10-nation field. Shortly afterward, her three teammates chose to leave her to form their own team. Frustrated and saddened, McCormick considered quitting the sport, taking a year off to soothe her damaged feelings.
Brown, her childhood friend, gave her time to heal — and the moment McCormick was ready to come back to curling, Brown gave her the perfect landing place — as the final piece of an all-star team Brown assembled with the goal of getting to Sochi. And with one aim accomplished, they are eyeing another.
The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in women’s curling. Team Brown hit its stride with a fourth-place finish at last year’s world championships and swept to victory at the Olympic trials in November, giving Brown hope that her 16-year wait to return to the Winter Games might end with a historic achievement in Sochi.
“We all wanted to get back [to the Olympics], that’s for sure,’’ said Brown, whose team finished fifth at the 1998 Nagano Olympics in curling’s debut as a medal sport. “I think our potential is great. If we play like we did [at the trials], I think we’re going to be back on the podium.’’
All four members of Team Brown have played in previous Olympics, and they have won 22 national championships among them. Brown competed at the 1988 Winter Games as a 15-year-old prodigy, before curling had become a medal sport, then returned 10 years later. McCormick is a four-time Olympian who played with Brown in Nagano. Jessica Schultz, a Minneapolis resident, was on the 2006 Olympic team, and Ann Swisshelm played in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
In Vancouver, McCormick’s team never found its footing, leaving her in tears as she struggled to figure out what was wrong. Its subsequent breakup was even more painful, because the group had become very close in its five years together.
Brown had been friends with McCormick since their childhood in Wisconsin, and she invited her to serve as her team’s alternate while McCormick sorted out her feelings. She hoped the arrangement would become permanent, but it took McCormick longer to reach the same conclusion.
“There were times when I wanted to quit this game, quite honestly,’’ she said. “I was so frustrated and sad.
“Playing with Erika’s team as alternate really helped me realize how much I still love this sport. I felt I could still contribute to a team, I wanted to be part of a team, and I just wanted to face my demons and keep going for it.’’
Though Brown didn’t push too hard, she didn’t give up, either. “[McCormick] couldn’t ignore us any more,’’ she said, laughing. “She buckled to the pressure and joined us. I can rely on her. I totally believe in her.’’
With Brown as skip, McCormick had to accept a new role. She adjusted to not being the person controlling the strategy and has thrived in the third position. Schultz, who moved from Alaska to Minnesota 10 years ago to pursue elite-level curling, plays second, while Swisshelm, of Chicago, plays lead.
Schultz said the four fit together well, in large part because of their single-mindedness. “We’re very focused on our goals,’’ she said. “On top of that, I think we’re all very open and understanding people. We like to keep the communication open. And our egos, we don’t have any. We just like to have fun and get out there and play.’’
That goes for their off-ice time as well. The team made a video parody of the Ylvis song “What Does The Fox Say,’’ demonstrating they can both dance and curl while wearing animal costumes. The video — called “What Does The Skip Say’’ — has been viewed nearly 30,000 times on YouTube.
Now that they’re in Sochi, it’s time to get serious. “Going back to the Olympics is just amazing,’’ McCormick said. “I feel like I can face my demons and do a great job. I’m really excited to get back and hopefully win a medal. That’s what we’re going for.’’