SOCHI, RUSSIA – Every four years during the Olympic Games, Americans get swept up in curling, in part because of its everyman nature. They love the fact that pizza chefs, physician assistants, junior-high science teachers and restaurant managers can become Olympians, competing alongside the world’s best athletes for the most coveted medals in sports.
But Americans love a winner, too. And U.S. curlers have come up short in that regard, with only one Olympic medal — a bronze by the men’s team in 2006 — in five appearances at the Winter Games. With round-robin play ending Monday in Sochi, the U.S. women are 1-7 and will finish last in the 10-team field. The men are 2-6 and out of medal contention.
Rick Patzke, chief operating officer for USA Curling, said Sunday that the organization must re-examine the way it supports its athletes and chooses teams if it hopes to improve its Olympic performance. Some possibilities are controversial, such as focusing its funding on a smaller pool of athletes. Others will require a significant bump in fundraising.
Many countries are pumping money into their national programs, giving athletes the financial support to train full-time, play regularly on world-class ice and travel extensively to tournaments and camps. America’s elite curlers still work regular jobs, train together infrequently, practice on lower-quality ice and compete closer to home. With the level of global competition continuing to rise, Patzke said, the U.S. risks falling farther behind if it does not adapt.
“There have been a lot of groans and skepticism among the people who think we should just keep being totally democratic,’’ Patzke said. “People who just want to put a team together and think, ‘Gee, I may make it to the Olympics’ may not like this. But to compete — even to qualify — for [the 2018 Olympics], we can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well, maybe we’ll get better.’
“The rest of the world has significantly raised its game, while we’ve fallen behind by not getting that much better. We need to help our best get even better, so they can rise to the level of play required.’’
The U.S. men’s team, skipped by John Shuster of Duluth, lost 8-6 to Canada and 6-4 to Sweden on Sunday to fall out of contention. The women’s team, led by skip Erika Brown, was eliminated Saturday. Against unbeaten Canada on Sunday, it played one of its best games, losing 7-6 in an extra end.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the women’s and men’s teams finished at the bottom of the standings. After those Games, USA Curling did a thorough review of its operations.
Though the organization had expectations of medaling in Sochi, Patzke said, it set a six-year time frame to turn things around. The U.S. Olympic Committee, which provides about 45 percent of its $1.7 million budget, gave its support to the plan. But the USOC wants to see returns on its investments, and Patzke said USA Curling could see funding reduced after the poor showing in Sochi.
The organization spends about $680,000 per year to support its elite athletes. Some countries, Patzke said, are spending three times that much. China’s women’s team spent a month in Minneapolis last summer to train at the new Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine, one of the few facilities with year-round ice. Russia and Japan give their teams hefty financial support.
“A lot of these teams are professionals now,’’ said Derek Brown, USA Curling’s director of high performance. “Almost half the field [in Sochi] doesn’t have day jobs. Our teams have to balance curling with work and family, which is tough.’’
Brown also noted that many top countries support a small pool of elite curlers and choose all-star teams for the Olympics. In the U.S., curlers form their own teams, and the winning foursome at the Olympic trials gets the Olympic berth.
Patzke said there is huge resistance within USA Curling to the all-star concept. Many do not even like the idea of concentrating the funding on a smaller group of athletes, believing that runs counter to the group’s democratic philosophy. This year, USA Curling spread its high-performance funds among all nine teams in the Olympic trials.
The athletes also seem resistant to being paid to train and compete full time. Jessica Schultz of Minneapolis and Debbie McCormick of Rio, Wis., members of Brown’s team in Sochi, said they like having a balance between curling and careers. Both also said they felt they had everything they needed to perform well at the Olympics.
Shuster rejected the idea, too, though he acknowledged it gets results. “That’s not the way our country works,’’ he said. “It’s very important that everybody has some way of qualifying for the Olympics.’’
USA Curling will use a new selection process for the world championships this spring; instead of automatically sending the team that wins the national title, it will send the team in the top three that has the most World Curling Tour points.
The organization has hired a fundraising manager, and it is trying to bring more high-level competitions to the U.S. It also hopes to get athletes more training time at facilities like the Four Seasons club, where icemakers can replicate the playing surfaces used at major events.
If the U.S. can figure out the right system, Patzke said, there is no reason it cannot become a regular contender for Olympic and world medals.
“We get so much media, so much publicity, during the Olympics,’’ Patzke said. “It makes me think, ‘I wonder what it would be like if we were winning?’ ’’