Erika Brown

Curling’s Erika Brown eyes return to Olympics, 26 years after her debut

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source: Getty ImagesErika Brown could earn her third trip to the Olympics next week. Her first came in 1988.

She was 15 years old and the youngest member of the U.S. delegation at the Calgary Olympics. Now 40, Brown is the skip (or leader) of the reigning U.S. champion curling rink (or team).

Olympic Curling Trials can be a bit unpredictable, but Team Brown is the favorite if there is one. Four women’s rinks gather in Fargo, N.D., for a double round-robin tournament beginning Monday night.

The top two teams after round-robin play will meet in a best-of-three series beginning Friday afternoon to determine the single rink that will represent the U.S. at the Sochi Olympics in February.

NBCSN will air coverage of the men’s and women’s finals beginning Friday.

Brown’s rink has been called the all-star team of U.S. curling. Brown and three women from different rinks – Debbie McCormick, Jessica Schultz and Ann Swisshelm — teamed up in summer 2011. All have Olympic experience.

McCormick skipped the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team that went 2-7 and finished in 10th and last place in Vancouver. It marked the lowest U.S. finish since women’s curling’s official Olympic debut in 1998, eight years after McCormick and Swisshelm lost in the bronze-medal match in Salt Lake City.

Brown is not old for her sport. Curling ages ranged from 17 to 47 at the 2010 Olympics. Swisshelm is 45. A 50-year-old competed in 2006. But no curler since 1998 has been as young as Brown was in 1988.

Curling was a demonstration sport in 1988, essentially trying out for a place on the Olympic sports program. Medals were still awarded. The sport now gathers an every-four-years cult following, but back then it was more of an oddity.

The story goes that when it was announced as a demonstration sport after a 56-year Games hiatus, Calgary 1988 officials received phone calls from beauticians wanting to participate in Olympic curling.

“People didn’t understand the game that much,” Brown said in a phone interview. “You don’t wear skates? What are those funny brooms you’re using?”

Brown’s hastily constructed rink that signed up for Trials via a bulletin board post survived the losers bracket and ousted the defending U.S. champions to earn the trip to Calgary.

“We weren’t very worldly,” said 1988 skip Lisa Schoeneberg, also Brown’s babysitter.

It showed. They perspired through the Olympic tournament, placing fifth in sweaters and turtlenecks.

“It was so hot,” said Lori Mountford, another 1988 teammate. “We didn’t know.”

Before the Games, media took notice of a LaFollette High School ninth grader with fluffed bangs. The Associated Press likened her to Mariel Hemingway.

“We all had big hair then, big glasses,” Mountford said. “I think she had a perm. Perms were ‘in’ then, too.”

The teen came from what’s now known as the First Family of Curling, a Madison, Wis., clan that’s owned Packers season tickets since the 1950s.

Meet the Browns. Father Steve and mother Diane own Steve’s Curling Supplies, what’s believed to be the largest curling store in the U.S.

Steve, who will coach the U.S. wheelchair team at the Sochi Paralympics, was the women’s team coach in 1988 and three inches shorter than his 15-year-old daughter.

Steve also competed at the 1988 Olympic Trials, struggling to concentrate while he could hear his daughter hollering in her matches about 50 feet away. He lost.

Diane was an unused alternate player on the 1988 Olympic Team, assistant coach and team administrator.

Younger brother Craig at first hated curling but, two decades after being bribed to the curling club with McDonald’s, is now full-fledged. He’s on one of the five men’s teams at next week’s Olympic Trials in Fargo.

Erika, a high school state champion golfer, also hit .400 as a little league baseball player, on a boys team, smacking one over-the-fence home run. She grew up with Olga Korbut posters and colored-paper-cut Olympic rings taped on her walls.

She watched her first curling match at age 8 (days, not years) and threw Kleenex boxes and ashtrays across the ice before she was strong enough to curl 42-pound rocks.

source:
Erika Brown in the Sports Illustrated 1988 Winter Olympics preview issue.

Brown made the Olympic Team, and then she made People magazine, Sports Illustrated and morning talk shows. Dan Patrick visited her Madison home for a CNN interview.

“I’m sure it was not his first pick for a story,” she joked.

Here’s video of Brown being interviewed by two-time 1964 U.S. Olympic swimming champion Donna de Varona during ABC’s broadcast of the 1988 Olympic Opening Ceremony.

“It’s one of the strongest memories I have, that interview,” Brown said. “It was a corny thing that my friends made fun of me for.”

She was committed going into the Games, waking up before sunrise to practice at a Madison curling club before high school classes. She was a bit cocky, too.

Wayne Gretzky would beat me pretty bad in hockey,” she told the AP in 1988, “but I’m sure I’d beat him just as bad in curling,”

She laughed at being read the comment this week.

“Big words out of the mouth of a 14-year-old,” Brown said.

Brown’s teammates included the skip Schoeneberg, a data control specialist for a cattle insemination company. Also, Mountford, a Madison Newspapers payroll supervisor. The last addition was Carla Casper, then a 42-year-old housewife.

All had hazy memories of the 1988 Olympics.

“I’m on social security now!” Casper said.

Casper has three children older than Brown. One of her favorite souvenirs from Calgary was the U.S. placard from the Max Bell Arena scoreboard.

Brown felt compelled to call a friend at home when she received a hair dryer with an American flag on it.

“I think the hair dryer conked out about two years ago,” Brown said. “I still have all our uniforms from Opening Ceremony, marching gear. I saved all the stuff. The cowboy hat.”

Mountford said she recalled “tiny little glimpses” of Calgary, but Brown’s precocious talent was clear.

“I never thought about her age,” Casper said. “She had a great understanding of the game, and she could execute shots.”

Outside of competing, the team remembered figure skating the most. They attended ice dancing and took sides in the Battle of the Brians.

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Erika Brown (center) mingling with 1988 U.S. Olympians. (photo via Lori Mountford)

Casper met Canadian silver medalist Brian Orser. Brown had her picture taken next to American gold medalist Brian Boitano and bronze medalist Debi Thomas.

“We went downtown, city center Calgary,” Schoeneberg said. “They shot off fireworks at night. I said I’d never have to see a firework again. They were fabulous.”

They traded items with other athletes, too. Casper got her hands on a coveted Swiss Swatch.

“The second hand was a curling stone that went around,” she said. “I wore that watch for years after.”

Brown brought her geometry book to Calgary, but Mountford didn’t think she did much studying. She missed about 43 days of school in 1987-88.

They called home after matches to relay results. Their biggest regret? Watching the Closing Ceremony from Wisconsin.

“We did our curling stuff,” Casper said. “Then we went home.”

And a return to normalcy.

“There wasn’t anything like the ‘American Idol’ where they throw a pep rally or have a parade through the city, that’s for sure,” Brown said. “I’ve got a lovely plaque.”

Brown felt curling was there to stay in the Olympics, despite the fact she played in front of a few hundred fans in Calgary. She also believed she would be back.

“It was such a young age to be exposed to top-level competition,” said Brown, who took a golf scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. “To be exposed to that at such a young age gave me a really good base understanding of my commitment to do something like that again.”

The entire group hasn’t been together since 1988, they believe. Casper retired, and Brown, Schoeneberg and Mountford made the first official U.S. Olympic women’s curling team 10 years later in Nagano. They were eliminated in round-robin play.

“I wasn’t happy with the outcome,” Schoeneberg said. “It was a tough one for me, because I think we should have medaled there. The first one (1988) is awesome you know. Wide-eyed. The second one (1998) we were so intense.”

It’s been almost 16 years since Nagano. Brown still wakes early, to pack lunches and walk Nathan (7) and Cole (6) to the bus stop before driving her black 2011 Hyundai Sonata to Stonechurch Family Health Center, where she’s a physician’s assistant.

Sometimes, she squeezes in 45 minutes of on-ice practice during her lunch break.

She met her husband, a Canadian, at a curling event (naturally) and moved to Ontario in 2004.

A quarter-century since Calgary, her teammates aren’t surprised Brown’s still throwing stones.

“It’s in her blood,” Schoeneberg said.

Brown owns seven National Championships and two silver medals from the World Championships. But she has never stood on an Olympic podium.

“I would think that she wants it pretty bad,” Casper said. “I would if I were her with her past and knowing how competitive she is. I would think she wants it a lot.”

Brown just wants to get back to the Games.

“It would be a great wrap up,” she said, “25 years of curling.”

Curling in Hawaii

USOC supports athletes expressing themselves after anthem protests

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PARK CITY, Utah — The U.S. Olympic Committee supports American athletes expressing themselves at winter sports events leading up to the PyeongChang Olympics.

Some MLB, NFL and WNBA players kneeled and remained in locker rooms during the national anthem at games over the weekend.

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun was asked Monday if the USOC would support American athletes peacefully protesting during the national anthem this fall and winter at pre-Games competition.

“I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t,” Blackmun said at a pre-Winter Games media summit. “We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.”

Blackmun was correct to reference the Olympic Charter, which states that “no kind of demonstration … is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Blackmun mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos‘ raised-fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which got them kicked out of the Games.

The USOC has since honored Smith and Carlos. They visited the White House last year with the Rio Olympic team.

“That was a seminal moment not only for the Olympic Movement, but for the U.S. Olympic team,” Blackmun said of the 1968 podium gesture. “Our stance on this has been fairly clear. We certainly recognize the rights of the athletes to express themselves.”

Olympic hopefuls were peppered with questions about possible protests at the media summit.

“One of the proudest parts of being an American is the ability to have freedom of speech,” four-time Olympian Julia Mancuso said. “I really look up to athletes who take a stand for what they believe in. I really believe as athletes that compete for Team USA, when it comes to the Olympics, I like to think it’s a special event. Not like the NFL or pro sports teams that compete every weekend. For us, it’s every four years. I’m proud for athletes that stand up for what they believe in if they really want to have a message to get out. But I like to think of us all as patriotic.”

Elana Meyers Taylor, a two-time Olympic bobsled medalist, is the daughter of a U.S. Marine who served in Kuwait and spent summers in the 1980s playing at Atlanta Falcons training camps.

She said any decisions on demonstrations or whether she attends a post-Olympics Team USA White House visit come secondary to her pursuit of making the Olympic team this winter.

“I can’t afford to focus on what I would do in that situation or how I would react,” Meyers Taylor said, adding that anything would be a “game-time decision.” “Maybe the social climate changes a little bit [before the Olympics]. … There’s a lot to consider.”

Aja Evans, a 2014 Olympic bobsled bronze medalist, the sister of former NFL defensive tackle Fred Evans, did not say that she would follow the football players’ lead.

“I honor and commend anyone that does that,” Evans said. “My way of showing my stance is to continue to try to be a positive influence for my city, for my country. I’m representing Team USA the best way I can.”

NCAA hockey players Troy Terry and Jordan Greenway, both prospective Olympians with the NHL not participating, said they didn’t envision taking a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I’ve always stood for the national anthem,” Greenway said. “I always will.”

Olympic freestyle skiing medalists Maddie Bowman and Gus Kenworthy have said they plan to skip the traditional Team USA post-Olympic White House visit due to the current presidential administration. Figure skater Ashley Wagner, too, said she would not go if she had to choose today.

Kenworthy said he was shocked that President Donald Trump believed that athletes kneeling during the national anthem disrespected the flag.

“Those people [servicemen and women] are fighting for the freedom to express their beliefs,” Kenworthy said. “I feel proud to be from a country where we have the right to be able to kind of say what we feel, speak up for what we believe in. I feel that people kneeling before a game is actually quite admirable.”

Kenworthy didn’t rule out a personal demonstration at the Olympics, should he qualify again, but knows he could be stripped of a medal for doing so.

“I’m not saying that I would want to be dictated by fear, and if I was to get a medal and be too scared that it would be taken away from me,” he said. “I think that there’s a way to do things in a way that’s not going to sabotage yourself. You can stand up for something and not throw yourself under the bus.”

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U.S. Olympic men’s hockey player from 2006 has shot at PyeongChang

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PARK CITY, Utah — Though no active NHL players will be in PyeongChang, veteran NHL forward and free agent Brian Gionta could very well play for his second U.S. Olympic team in February.

A USA Hockey official confirmed Monday that the 2006 Olympian Gionta “has a very decent opportunity” to be part of the 2018 Olympic team.

That came in response to a Buffalo radio report that Gionta said it’s looking good for him to play for Team USA.

Gionta, 38, played 15 NHL seasons through last year but is currently unsigned as the NHL preseason continues. The U.S. Olympic team of 25 players named around Jan. 1 is likely to include very few, if any, players with Gionta’s experience.

Gionta was seen at the Rochester (N.Y.) AHL club’s practice Monday (but not taking part), according to media in that area. Gionta could play for an AHL club and be eligible for PyeongChang. USA Hockey wants prospective Olympians to be active in the AHL, NCAA or a European league.

Gionta’s agent has not responded to a request for comment on his Olympic prospects on Monday. Earlier in the summer, Gionta’s agent said that the skater was considering the Olympics.

Gionta led the 2006 U.S. Olympic team with four goals. The Americans lost in the quarterfinals to Finland, their worst Olympic result over the last four Winter Games.

That came during Gionta’s most productive NHL season — 48 goals (sixth in the league) and 41 assists for the New Jersey Devils.

Another Olympian — Ryan Malone from 2010 — embarked on a comeback this preseason and could pursue the Olympics. He has been in camp with the Minnesota Wild. If he doesn’t make the Wild, Malone could play on an AHL contract and be eligible for the Olympics.

USA Hockey confirmed that other players in the potential Olympic pool — at some 100 players at the moment — include Nathan Gerbe. Gerbe, a 30-year-old forward, played 394 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes from 2008-16 before joining the Swiss League.

Another is goalie Ryan Zapolski, who ranks third in the KHL in goals-against average this season.

John-Michael Liles, a 2006 Olympic defenseman and unsigned NHL veteran, is not interested in continuing his career in a non-NHL league to be considered for the Olympics, USA Hockey said.

U.S. general manager Jim Johannson said this summer that he was interested in some players who “have a rich history in the NHL and with USA Hockey that we think could potentially really help this roster.” Johannson wouldn’t name names then.

Johansson said a “long list” of potential players for the final 25-man roster must be submitted in September.

A U.S. team of primarily European-based players will take part in a tournament in November in Germany. That roster is expected to be named in October.

The U.S. staff will also look at NCAA and AHL players ahead of naming the PyeongChang team.

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