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

Justin Gatlin wins, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce loses at Pre Classic; American records fall

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Justin Gatlin is still the world’s fastest man — when Usain Bolt is not in the field.

Gatlin won the Prefontaine Classic 100m in a wind-aided 9.88 seconds in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday (video here), while American records fell in two women’s races.

Gatlin beat a field that included two of the other five fastest men of all time — Asafa Powell (9.94) and Tyson Gay (9.98). Canadian Andre De Grasse, the co-World bronze medalist, was last in 10.05.

Powell and fourth-place Mike Rodgers both said they didn’t hear the starter’s gun.

“Justin got such a big jump, it was too far for me to catch him,” Powell said.

Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100m champion who served a doping ban from 2006 to 2010, moved to 32-2 in individual sprints since the start of 2014, according to Tilastopaja.org.

The only two losses were in the only two races that also included Usain Bolt — the 100m and 200m at the 2015 World Championships. Gatlin and Bolt are not expected to race each other again until the Rio Olympics, should they both qualify at their trials.

The Pre Classic marked the biggest track meet before the U.S. Olympic Trials from July 1-10, also in Eugene.

Full Pre Classic results are here.

In other events, Keni Harrison broke the American record in the 100m hurdles by winning in 12.24 seconds (video here). Harrison matched the second-fastest time ever and was .03 off the world record set by Bulgaria’s Yordanka Donkova in 1988.

Harrison was a revelation in 2015, winning the NCAA title and finishing second at the U.S. Championships. She false started out of the World Championships semifinals Aug. 28.

She elevated to another level this year, clocking the four fastest times in the world so far.

“My coach, he puts it in mind, 12.1 [seconds], 12.1, 12.1, so that’s what I go for in practice,” Harrison said. “I didn’t feel that fast at all.”

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who could become the first three-time Olympic 100m champ in Rio, finished last in eighth place in her first 100m since Sept. 6 (video here).

She clocked 11.18 seconds, competing for the first time in any meet since April 30, recovering from a toe injury. It’s the second instance in three years Fraser-Pryce finished last in her Pre Classic race. Fraser-Pryce was actually faster Saturday than in her first 100m of 2013 and 2015, years she went on to capture World titles.

American English Gardner won in 10.81 seconds, .01 off the fastest in the world this year. Gardner was the second-fastest woman in the world last year but eliminated in the World Championships semifinals while recovering from a reported partially torn right hamstring.

“Nationals last year, I tapered and ran 10.79,” Gardner said. “Loaded, weight room, no taper, 10.81, I can’t be mad at that. I’m not even ready to really run. I haven’t even done really any speed work.”

Meanwhile, perhaps Fraser-Pryce’s biggest sprint rival ran the fastest 200m in the world this year. That’s American Tori Bowie, who was a long jumper until March 2014.

On Saturday, Bowie beat World champion Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands with a personal-best 21.99 seconds (video here).

“My coach said he is sick and tired of seeing me run 22 seconds,” Bowie, crouching on the track in exhaustion, told Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Bowie, who earned World 100m bronze in August and didn’t contest the 200m, now owns the fastest 100m and 200m times in the world this year.

Schippers, who won the 2015 World title in 21.63, was second in 22.11. The field did not include injured Olympic champion Allyson Felix.

In the 400m, Kirani James outdueled American rival LaShawn Merritt for the 12th time in 19 meetings between the last two Olympic champions. James edged Merritt, 44.22 to 44.39 (video here). South African Wayde van Niekerk, who won the 2015 World title in 43.48, was not in the field Saturday.

In the women’s 400m, Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross was seventh in 52.16, well off the time she needs at trials on July 3 to make her fourth Olympic team. Shaunae Miller, who took silver behind Felix at 2015 Worlds, won Saturday in 50.15.

“Definitely behind on training, so hoping a month will be enough time to get it together for trials,” said Richards-Ross, adding that she does not have any health or injury problems.

Vashti Cunningham, the 18-year-old daughter of retired NFL Pro Bowl quarterback Randall Cunningham, was fifth in the high jump. Cunningham, the U.S. and World Indoor champ, could become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor since 1976 if she finishes in the top three at trials July 3.

Jamaican Omar McLeod remained undefeated in four 110m hurdles races this year, clocking 13.06 seconds in a rout by .32 (video here). McLeod, 22, won the 2015 NCAA title for Arkansas, then went pro and finished sixth at the World Championships on Aug. 28. He’s now the clear Olympic favorite with the four fastest times in the world this year.

David Oliver, the 2013 World champion, was second behind McLeod in 13.38. Olympic champion and world-record holder Aries Merritt was fourth in 13.51, nearly nine months removed from a kidney transplant.

“It was a crappy race top to bottom, aside from Omar,” Oliver said.

Bernard Lagat, who at 41 will try to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time at trials, dropped out during the 5000m due to a cold. It was the 15th and final Pre Classic appearance for Lagat, who plans to retire later this year.

“After that first mile, I could feel like my chest was burning,” Lagat said. “I can get healthy and come back for the trials.”

World champion Christian Taylor captured the triple jump with his final leap (video here). Taylor’s 17.76-meter mark overtook countryman Will Claye‘s 17.56 meters. Taylor and Claye also went one-two at the London Olympics.

Emma Coburn broke the American record finishing third in the 3000m steeplechase (video here). Her time of 9:10.76 bettered Jenny Simpson‘s mark of 9:12:50 from 2009. Coburn also beat Simpson’s time in July 2014, but she wasn’t drug tested after that race, so it wasn’t ratified as an American record.

On Saturday, Coburn cried multiple times after her record and then made sure to get drug tested.

Boris Berian earned his first Diamond League victory in the 800m, clocking 1:44.20 against a field that didn’t include Olympic and World champion and world-record holder David Rudisha. (video here)

Berian, who was flipping burgers at a McDonald’s inside a Walmart two years ago, raced one week after being served a lawsuit by Nike for breach of a sponsorship contract after he switched from Nike to New Balance this year. Nike sponsors the Pre Classic.

French Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie cleared 5.81 meters to win the pole vault, wearing a University of Oregon jersey. Canadian World champion Shawn Barber was second, also clearing 5.81 meters but with more misses than Lavillenie. American Sam Kendricks, who beat Lavillenie and Barber in Shanghai on May 14, was third at 5.71 meters.

U.S. Olympic medalists swept the 400m hurdles, won by London silver medalist Michael Tinsley in 48.74 (video here). He passed 2008 Olympic silver medalist Kerron Clement (48.87) after the final hurdle. Beijing Olympic bronze medalist Bershawn Jackson (49.04) took third.

Another American, Johnny Dutch, is fastest in the world this year (48.36). Dutch was not in the Pre Classic field.

The Diamond League continues in Rome on Thursday.

MORE: Rio Olympic, Paralympic medals reveal date set

Novak Djokovic plans on Olympics ‘for the moment’; Serena mulls ‘super protection’

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PARIS — Top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic says canceling the Olympics “is unthinkable” and, “for the moment,” he is still planning to compete at the Rio de Janiero Games, despite worries about the Zika virus.

Speaking at the French Open on Saturday, Djokovic added that people should not only be concerned about those who are going to Rio for the Olympics, but also the Brazilians themselves — “not talking about them too much.”

Earlier Saturday, the World Health Organization rejected a call from 150 health experts to consider postponing or moving the Aug. 5-21 Olympics.

Says Djokovic: “Honestly, I don’t know what to think anymore.”

The No. 1 women’s tennis player, Serena Williams, says Zika has “been on my mind” and she will have to head to Rio “super-protected, maybe.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic tennis player refuses to answer meldonium questions