Erika 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.
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.
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.”