After watching the dismal performances of American curlers at the past two Olympics, Tabitha Peterson agreed that her sport needed to rethink the way it did things. Still, she said, it felt like a radical shift in 2014 when USA Curling instituted a new method of funding and training its elite athletes.
“It used to be, you could do your own thing,” said Peterson, of Eagan. “You didn’t have to have a lot of coaching if you didn’t want it. You could pick your own schedule. You could go out and drink the night before [a competition] if you wanted. Now, it’s a lot more serious.”
She isn’t complaining, given the results. With one year to go before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, USA Curling’s high performance program (HPP) has helped Americans muscle back into contention on the world stage.
In the past, elite American curlers formed their own self-directed teams. That approach yielded only one Olympic medal, leading the U.S. Olympic Committee to warn it could cut the sport’s financial support if it did not make changes. USA Curling responded by creating the HPP, in which it chooses a pool of athletes each spring, assembles them into teams and oversees their training and competition.
The program provides funding; support from a national coaching staff, trainer and sports psychologist; and access to facilities such as the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine, an official USOC training center. Last season, HPP teams won two silver medals and two bronze at world championship events. This week, as the U.S. championships begin in Everett, Wash., all six adult teams sit in the top 37 of the World Curling Tour rankings.
“It’s a slow process, getting these changes implemented,” said Derek Brown, USA Curling’s director of high performance. “But the results have started to show.
“Our athletes have become more professional as teams, more focused. It’s not a job yet, but it’s starting to be treated more like a job, with more accountability. That’s what we have to have, because we’re competing against countries that have professional teams with full-time salaries.”
The HPP ignited controversy in the curling community when it was launched, and it still has opponents. Some mourn the loss of the old system, in which any self-formed team could win the right to represent the U.S. at the Olympics or world championships. Those teams now must compete for national titles and big-event berths against the 44 athletes in the HPP, which gets the bulk of the $850,000 that USA Curling spends to support elite athletes.
Chris Plys of Duluth said it was “nerve-racking” to go through the first HPP selection process in 2014. He has made the cut every year and has seen it elevate nearly every aspect of the game — right down to the uniforms, as baggy polo shirts were swapped for sleek, modern gear.
“Something had to give,” said Plys, an Olympic alternate in 2010. “I don’t want to take anything away from people’s dreams, but when you’re recognized by the USOC, it’s not just your average rec-league curling. There’s some serious money and serious accountability involved. I know some people were disappointed, but this is something that had to be done.”
Mom-and-pop no more
Rick Patzke, CEO of USA Curling, said the Americans already were falling behind other countries when Pete Fenson of Bemidji skipped the U.S. to Olympic bronze in 2006. While nations such as China and Russia shoveled money into their programs, the U.S. continued a mom-and-pop approach.
Its self-formed teams had little funding, no oversight and did not regularly compete against the world’s best. That left the U.S. underprepared when it reached the world championships or Olympics. The HPP mirrors the system used by other countries, with teams chosen and managed by the national governing body.
To get into the HPP, athletes must be invited to a yearly combine at the Four Seasons club. National coaches put them through a variety of tests, scrutinizing their fitness and technique, and consider their performance over the past two years. Those selected for the program are sent to compete at high-level events around the world. They also attend training camps at Four Seasons and the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and are closely monitored by HPP staff.
Vicky Persinger said being in the HPP requires much greater commitment and accountability. Under the old system, she lived in Fairbanks, Alaska, and trained on her own. Last year, she quit her job and moved to St. Paul to train regularly with her team at Four Seasons.
“There are sacrifices, but this is what it takes to be the best,” Persinger said. “The coaching staff and program director set high standards, and you can see the improvement. Teams from the U.S. are proving themselves on the [World Curling] Tour.”
Last year, the U.S. men — including Minnesotans John Shuster, Tyler George and John Landsteiner — won bronze at the world championships, the country’s first medal in nine years. Peterson and Joe Polo of Duluth were the bronze medalists at the world mixed doubles championships, the first time the U.S. has made the podium at that event. American teams also recorded their best-ever combined showing at the world junior championships, with silver medals won by men’s and women’s teams that featured Minnesotans Cory Christensen, Alex Fenson and Mark Fenner.
USA Curling achieved seven of eight milestones set by the USOC last season, drawing praise from the organization for its turnaround. This season, two U.S. men’s teams played in a Grand Slam event — limited to the world’s best teams — which Brown said was “probably a first” for the Americans.
“Overall, it seems as though we’re progressing really nicely, both at the junior and senior level,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. “I think the work USA Curling has done with athletes and coaches in the HPP has been terrific.”
Cultural shift happening
Patzke and Brown said the effect of the HPP hasn’t been confined to athletes in the program. It has raised the bar for self-formed teams, who must work harder if they are to remain competitive. The goal is to develop an “athlete mind-set” at the elite level to compete with countries whose budgets are two or three times that of the U.S.
“We’re going to be outspent, so we have to outsmart and outwork those competitors,” Patzke said. “We can’t have the attitude we had in the mid-2000s, which was, ‘Everything is OK, and we’ll be back on top in no time.’ We’re closing the gap, but we have to keep our foot on the gas.”
Though the program has been in place for only 2 ½ years, Patzke already is seeing a cultural shift. Young athletes are embracing the high expectations, including a new emphasis on fitness and nutrition. Plys said media and sponsors are taking curling more seriously.
The ultimate validation would be an Olympic medal in 2018, something that now feels within reach.
“This is the new norm that people are going to get used to,” Peterson said. “I definitely think we can, and should, be able to get on the podium at the Olympics. That’s what all of us are working for.”