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.

source:
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

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
TODAY
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Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order