FARGO, N.D. – Seconds after her curling team won the U.S. Olympic trials Saturday night, Jessica Schultz raced up the concrete stairs at Scheels Arena. She didn’t even pause to wipe the tears clouding her eyes as she headed to the section where her parents, Marty and Nancy, watched a nerve-racking 8-7 victory that vaulted Schultz and teammates Erika Brown, Debbie McCormick and Ann Swisshelm into the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Schultz moved from her native Alaska to Minnesota a decade ago to pursue a path as an elite curler. The training and travel required to chase an Olympic berth meant the Minneapolis resident had not seen her parents in 18 months. Their reunion was cause enough for celebration, but they got a huge bonus — and an equally huge hug from their elated daughter — as Schultz and her teammates became the first Americans nominated to the Sochi Games.
Brown, the skip of a team loaded with previous Olympic experience, broke a 7-7 tie with the last rock of the game to defeat a team skipped by Allison Pottinger of Eden Prairie. Brown’s sweep in the best-of-three finals capped an emotional day in Fargo, with more to come before the weekend concludes.
Earlier Saturday, Pete Fenson of Bemidji defeated Duluth’s John Shuster 5-4 to tie their best-of-three men’s final at one game each, forcing a deciding game Sunday.
Pottinger’s team, which lost 7-5 in Friday’s Game 1, included three 2010 Olympians. Schultz said her team — the defending national champions — needed to manage its emotions in a game it knew would be close. Once it was over, however, they let their feelings fly.
“They’re all just very excited and in shock,” Schultz said of a posse of family and friends who saw her earn a second trip to the Olympics. “All the hard work and everything has come together. We were all crying. The emotions just drained through us.
“Our team’s goal was to stay focused on the four of us on the sheet of ice. We knew all the shots we’d be playing we’d played before. Knowing we worked so hard for this moment, our goal was to stay in the moment and keep our nerves calm. Really, just breathe.”
That was not as simple as it sounds in a game that fulfilled three years of hopes and dreams and labor and sweat. Brown was part of the 1998 Olympic team and had fallen short in three tries for a return trip. McCormick was the skip of the 2010 Olympic team; after a poor showing in Vancouver, her three teammates — including Pottinger and Natalie Nicholson of Bemidji — left her to form their own squad.
Schultz played in the 2006 Olympics on a team skipped by Cassie Johnson Potter of St. Paul, and Swisshelm made the Olympic team in 2002. The four teammates, among the most decorated women curlers in the U.S., played well throughout the Olympic trials and grew stronger over the final games.
After Pottinger took a 1-0 lead Saturday, Brown scored two points in the second end and never trailed again. A strong ninth end by Pottinger’s team erased a 7-5 deficit and pulled it even heading into the final end. But Schultz said Brown has “nerves of steel,” and she finished with two spot-on shots to win.
Fenson’s team possesses the same unflappability, which carried it to a victory that kept its Olympic hopes alive. After dropping a 9-8 decision in 11 ends in Friday’s Game 1, it battled Shuster to an extra end again on Saturday with a different result.
With Fenson leading 4-3 after nine ends, Shuster had the advantage of throwing the last rock in the 10th. He was held to a single point, tying it 4-4. Fenson had the last shot in the 11th end, and his team’s precision gave him an easy path to score the winning point with a takeout on the final stone.
“We had a little firmer game plan today, stuck to it a little bit better and played a little bit better,” Fenson said. “My team handles these big games really well. I never worry about them. I know they’re going to show up, and I know they’re going to be relaxed.”
That was the goal for Brown’s team, too. Though her last shot was exactly the one the Wisconsin native wanted to throw for the victory, she and her teammates didn’t exhale until it came to rest in the spot that sent them to Sochi.
“I thought it was pretty good, but they weren’t sweeping very hard,” Brown said. “I was not celebrating until it came to a complete stop. I was pretty thrilled.”