Book excerpt: Olympic curling glory for Jennifer Jones, Brad Jacobs
Canadian curlers Brad Jacobs and Jennifer Jones brought back gold medals from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Russia last February. (Al Charest/QMI Agency/Files)
In the storied history of Canadian curling, never has there been a time like February of 2014.
It was in the picturesque Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, where political tension and terrorist threats gave way to two glorious weeks of Olympic passion and drama, that five men and five women from Canada took curling success to a new level.
They came from very different backgrounds and took their own, sometimes rocky, routes to the pinnacle of a sport they thought they'd never reach. They fought through injuries and heartbreak, changed team personnel and battled personal issues as they spent the better part of their lives in pursuit of Olympic glory.
Jennifer Jones and her Winnipeg teammates and the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., team skipped by Brad Jacobs finally found what they were looking for — both teams won gold medals, one day apart, in subtropical Russia.
For the first time since curling became part of the Olympics in 1998, it was a Canadian sweep.
Winnipeg Sun sports editor Ted Wyman covered the curling event in Sochi and now brings the whole story of the two teams — their histories, roads to the Olympics and the aftermath of their epic wins — to life in his new book Ice Gold, Canada’s Curling Champions, now on sale in book stores across Canada.
Excerpt on Brad Jacobs team:
If you happened to stop by the Soo Curlers Association Club on any random winter day in 1990, you might have seen the most unusual sight of two young boys tearing around the ice surface with their hockey helmets on. The youngest was just four years old, the oldest seven, and they loved to hang around the curling rink with their dad. His name was Eric Harnden, and he was a competitive curler who needed to practise and wanted to introduce his boys to the game at the same time. Eric Harnden and his brother, Al, were due to compete in the Brier that winter in their home town of Sault Ste. Marie, and he wanted his young sons to understand what he was doing and enjoy the experience.
“I’d go out and practise and I’d bring them out,” Eric Harnden said. “We’d put hockey helmets on them. They’d have a blast.”
The boys were Eric Jr. (E.J.) and Ryan Harnden, and their father couldn’t possibly have known what the experience would eventually mean to them. The Harnden brothers, just like their dad and uncle, took to curling immediately and some of their earliest memories came from the Soo Curlers Association Club. There was a home video, shot on Beta of all things, of four-year-old Ryan running through a house full of rocks, stepping on one of the stones, slipping and falling. “Thankfully, he had that hockey helmet on,” E.J. laughed decades later. “We sent it in to America’s Funniest Home Videos at that time when it was really popular, but we never heard back from them, so I guess it wasn’t funny enough.”
Ryan remembers the fall in the house, though it’s hard to know if it’s a memory of the incident or the video. E.J. remembers pushing a rock down the ice surface with both hands while his father practised. They carried cut-down brooms with them everywhere they went and couldn’t wait to get on the ice for a chance to slide curling rocks up and down the sheets. They both recall falling in love with the game at an early age. Perhaps it was because they got to spend time with their father while they did it, or because they got to watch their dad and uncle compete in club playdowns, provincial championships and even the Brier.
“I don’t think there’s anything cooler than being a little kid, growing up and watching your dad play in a national championship and watching 5,000-plus people chant your last name,” E.J. told the Sault Star. “I don’t think it gets any better than that.”
“I remember being up there and admiring him,” Ryan added. “He is still my hero and still the best curler in the world in my mind.”
In other years you might have seen another young kid, a self-described rink rat named Brad Jacobs, hanging around at the Soo Curlers Association Club. Brad was a first cousin to the Harndens — he was the son of Eric and Al’s sister Cindy — and he shared their passion for curling from an early age. He worked as an ice boy at the curling club under ice technician Ian Fisher and loved to watch his uncles play the game. He was more like a brother to the Harndens — all three of the boys crawled around the floor together as babies and grew up wrestling and roughhousing, organizing ball hockey games and getting into the usual active-boy trouble.
“We were all considered ‘rink rats,’ eager to learn from the family members who introduced us to the sport and never wanting to go home until we were forced to leave,” said Jacobs.
Brad Jacobs was born on June 11, 1985, in Sault Ste. Marie, the first child of Robert and Cindy Jacobs. He was raised in the city of about 75,000 along with his younger sister, Lyndsey, and was involved in sports as far back as he can remember. “Healthy, active living is something my parents really believe in and practise, and I’m glad for that,” Jacobs told ActiveForLife.com. “I pretty much did every sport as a kid, in school and outside of school. I tried it all.” The Sault was always a sports town and was the birthplace of Hockey Hall of Famers Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito and Ron Francis. The Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League are a big part of the sports fabric, having once been home to hockey icons like Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Joe Thornton and Jeff Carter. And the people there love their curling.
Though they are three years apart in age, the Harnden brothers were best friends from a very young age. They had separate groups of friends, but they always gravitated back to each other when it came to sports. They played street hockey in front of their family home, baseball in the nearby park, strapped on the skates at the local rink and hit the links together for some golf in the summer. “We were always there for each other,” E.J. said.
Both boys played hockey growing up and were good enough to make travelling teams. Brad played hockey, baseball and golf and practiced gymnastics. But all three always seemed to gravitate back to curling. E.J. played his first game at age eight, Brad at 10. Ryan remembers day-dreaming about the game even as a young child: “I remember practicing and playing a draw and I’d be pretending that the shot was to win the Brier.” This thing called curling was clearly pumping through their bodies like the very blood they inherited from their parents.
Brad Jacobs started working with a coach named Tom Coulterman in 1995, when he was just 10 years old. Coulterman had 20 years of curling and coaching experience, and he saw something special in some of the young curlers in Sault Ste. Marie. Coulterman was the junior curling coordinator at the Soo Curlers Association and would later go on to work for 13 years as the team leader for the Canadian Junior Men’s National Team. Coulterman’s influence on junior curlers across the country, and particularly in the Sault, cannot be overstated. He knew a good curler when he saw one and he loved what he saw in Brad Jacobs and Ryan Harnden, who were around the same age and were good candidates to form a team together. Ryan, though he was the youngest of the boys, was chosen as the skip and Jacobs was tapped to play third. They were joined on the team by Matt Premo and Scott Seabrook. At the time, Ryan was just 12 and Brad 13, and Coulterman couldn’t believe how good they already were.
“At their age, they’re the best rink I’ve seen,” Coulterman told the Sault Star in 1998. “First of all, their technical ability impresses me. They’re all excellent shooters and they have a good knowledge of the game. They’re just so far ahead of any one team I’ve seen, girls or boys, at the same ages.”
Interestingly, Coulterman could only think of one other boys’ team he’d seen that was even in the same class as the one skipped by Ryan Harnden — the one skipped by E.J. Harnden, then 15 and preparing for the Northern Ontario Curling Association junior championships. “When you see them very young, those [two] stand out,” he said. “You can tell they’ve got the potential to be something special.”
Excerpt on Jennifer Jones team:
The morning of the gold medal game started the same way as all others for the Canadian team — with toast and peanut butter. Jennifer Jones and her teammates are creatures of routine, and they had been starting their day with the same breakfast for years in tournaments all over the world. Normally, they pack their own toaster just in case they can’t get what they need. On this day they got their toast and peanut butter fix in the Athletes’ Village lounge.
When the curlers rolled into the arena for the gold medal game practice session, the Ice Cube Curling Center was a different place. Gone were the loud, enthusiastic Russian fans — the men’s and women’s teams from the host country failed to make the playoffs — and in their place were flag-waving, red-and-white-clad Canadians, including other athletes and even well-known NHL coach Mike Babcock. This was much more like what the Canadians were used to at home, and they relished the preamble to the game, waving to fans, friends and family, smiling and laughing as they stretched to get their bodies loose for the biggest game of their lives. Back home in Winnipeg, a few hundred people were gathered for the 6:30 a.m. start at the St. Vital Curling Club and the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. Jones could picture them in her mind’s eye and wanted badly to do something special for them, indeed for all the people back in Canada who had provided so much support.
Thanks to their perfect record, the Canadians had last rock in the first end but were only able to score one point, a small victory for the Swedes. Canada took back the momentum in the second, forcing Sweden to take one point and tie it up, blanked the third end and then took the lead with a key deuce in the fourth. That set the stage for a pivotal fifth end that could have been disastrous for Canada. Kaitlyn Lawes was struggling, perhaps having one of the worst games of her life. At one point in the third end, Lawes was curling just 18 percent. By the fifth she was up to 48 percent, but her misses were complicating the situation for Jones and, in that end, they opened the door for Sweden to score big and take the lead. In fact, Swedish fourth Maria Prytz had a chance to make a double with her last rock to score four and give Sweden a 5-3 lead. In Jones’s mind, the four points were already on the board.
“The thing is, it was early in the game and I said, ‘Worst-case scenario, we give up four and we’re only down two,’” Jones said. “We’re battlers and we’re tough and we come back.”
Much to Canada’s good fortune, Prytz only half-made her shot, removing one Canadian rock but pushing the other one only far enough to score two points instead of four. That tied the game at 3-3 and gave the hammer back to Canada. “Obviously it was huge keeping them to two when it wasn’t looking very good that end,” Jones said. The Canadians blanked the next two ends and it went into the eighth with the score still tied 3-3. Because of the blank ends, Jones was hitting with most of her rocks and had played only three draws in the entire game heading into the eighth. It came back to haunt her. Canada had a glorious chance to score two and take a critical two-point lead, but Jones came up well light on her draw. Then she had to agonize over a measurement that absolutely could have gone either way. Again, Canada was fortunate to come away with a single point for a 4-3 lead.
It could have been costly, especially with the Swedes taking the hammer into the ninth end, but Jones turned it all around again with one brilliant shot. The ninth was shaping up well for Canada to at least force the Swedes to take one and give back the hammer. By the time it came to skip stones, Jones was lying one behind cover at the back of the four-foot. With her last rock, Jones made a perfect draw — no way it was going to be light this time — to the top of the four-foot, which meant Prytz would have to do something incredible just to avoid giving up a steal of two. “It was one of those shots where I knew if we could put it in the right spot, I didn’t think they would be able to score,” Jones said. “It was a bit of a gamble, but I felt so good with the speed all week and the girls swept it perfectly. When it stopped it was in a pretty good position, but if it would have been a little bit higher, it would have been a problem. No guts, no glory.” The Swedish fourth couldn’t pull off the big shot, the Canadians stole two and, with a 6-3 lead, the gold medal was surely theirs.
“When we stole two I almost started to cry,” Jones told the CBC’s George Stroumboulopoulos after the Olympics. “I knew we had won the gold medal at that very moment. I was shaking and it was all we could do to keep it together in the tenth end. It was like the whole end was in slow motion. I looked at my mom and the tears were streaming down her eyes and my dad ... I looked at Brent ... it was all I could do to not start crying in the tenth end of our gold medal game.”
They call it running your opponent out of rocks. It’s the least dramatic but most enjoyable way to win a curling game. Simply make them go away and your golden moment will arrive. When it came time for the final shot, Jones’s first in the tenth end, the skip took plenty of time to compose herself. She sat in the hack much longer than she normally does, flipped her hair a few extra times, checked, double-checked and triple-checked the bottom of the rock for debris. She wanted to not only make sure her shot would be perfect but also make the moment last. She had waited so long for this, worked so hard. There were so many people she wanted to share it with, including her teammates, her family and friends in the building, her infant daughter back in Ontario. But there was more to this. She thought of all the people back home, living and dying with her every
Olympic moment. This was for her home province of Manitoba, for her hometown of Winnipeg, for all of Canada.
She rocked back slightly in the hack and sprung forward, released the rock and watched as it slid perfectly toward destiny — a gold medal, an Olympic record 11-0, an eternity of dreams fulfilled. When it made contact, she threw her arms in the air and ran down to greet her beloved teammates, whose lives had been equally devoted to this task.
The celebration was on, and it brought tears to the eyes of curlers and Canadian fans alike.
Excerpted from Ice Gold: Canada’s Curling Champions by Ted Wyman. © 2014 by Ted Wyman. All rights reserved. Published throughout the world by ECW Press Ltd. ecwpress.com