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

Erika Brown
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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

With career records in view, Mikaela Shiffrin knows nothing is promised

Alexis Boichard/Agence Zoom/Getty Images
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Sometime in the coming weeks, U.S. alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin will presumably —  presumably being a very loaded and problematic word here  — win her 83rd race on the World Cup circuit, the highest level of her sport, thus passing fellow American Lindsey Vonn for the most career victories by a woman. Not long after that, she will presumably win her 87th race, one more than Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, who won his 86 races from 1975-89. With that win, Shiffrin, who will turn 28 in March, will have accumulated more career victories than any ski racer in history, and will have ended a chase that has been ongoing and presumed for the better part of a decade. She will be deservedly celebrated for this achievement.

That celebration will undersell the moment and give Shiffrin a lesser form of praise than she deserves, because that is what career records do, just by existing. Career records compress the pain and struggle of an athletic career into a single, antiseptic number: the most this, or the most that. Touchdown passes, base hits, goals, sub four-minute miles. It will be said that Shiffrin’s record is the result of sustained brilliance, and that is manifestly true. It will be said that she packed her victories into a shorter period — 12 seasons — than either of the final two racers she passed; Vonn raced 18 seasons and won No. 82 at age 33, while Stenmark raced 16 seasons and won his last race at age 32. So this will also be true.

But these descriptions will soften the toll of Shiffrin’s work, because that is also what career records do. They simplify the complicated and sand down the rough edges, in service of the myth that the chosen number was inevitable. This was particularly true with Shiffrin: She was a prodigy, whispered — and then shouted — about across the breadth of the sport when she was barely in her teens, as the next big — and possibly biggest — thing. She won her first World Cup race at age 17 and an Olympic gold medal at 18 (the 2014 slalom in Sochi). She won a remarkable 17 World Cup races in the season that ended on March 17 of 2019, just four days after her 24th birthday. At that point she had won 60 World Cup races and seemed likely to blow past Vonn and Stenmark in as little as two more seasons. Hosanas were readied.

It has not played out exactly like that. In the three-plus seasons since that remarkable 2019 campaign, Shiffrin has won a total of 16 races (40 of Shiffrin’s 76 wins were crammed into three hyper-successful seasons from 2017-’19). She has changed since then, and she has been changed — by personal tragedy, by injury, by the realization of personal and professional mortality which young athletes deny successfully and older athletes either deny unsuccessfully or accept and fight against. What seemed easy has become much more difficult. (Of course, it was always difficult, Shiffrin just made it look easy, which is what the exceptional among us do.) And she has endured, most of all.

“For the last two years, I’ve had a note with something I wrote down,” Shiffrin said last weekend from her World Cup base in Europe. “It says, basically, what I would like most in life is to go back, like two-and-a-half years. I want to go back to where I was at the start of the year right after that 17-win season. It was my greatest season ever, and I was so happy. And I’d give anything to go back to that feeling.” She does not say this as if saddened, but as if enlightened, a very different thing.

The arc of Shiffrin’s life and career following that 2019 season is well-known to ski racing fans and even to a broader audience that witnessed her struggles in the 2022 Olympics. (More on that upcoming.) Just before the start of the 2020 World Cup season, Shiffrin’s 98-year-old grandmother, Pauline Condron, died. It’s reflexive to diminish deaths of the very old, but loss is loss and Shiffrin was very close to her grandmother. Shiffrin won six races from November to late January — not the pace of her previous season, but not shabby. On Feb. 2, 2020, her father, Jeff, died from an injury suffered in an accident at the family’s home in Colorado, while Mikaela was racing in Europe. From that moment forward, Shiffrin has carried extra weight.

As we talked last week, I suggested to Shiffrin — and again, this is not revelatory in tracing the life of an athlete, or a human being — that what had been a certain kind of innocence had become significantly more complicated in the last few years.

“When I was 16, 17, 18 years old,” says Shiffrin. “I didn’t know many people who had passed away. Since then, two of the five most important people in my life have passed away. They’re not here anymore. And that number is not going to get smaller as I get older.”

After the death of her father, Shiffrin did not race for over 300 days, much of that time during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which World Cup racing continued with relatively few cancellations (although with many interruptions and absences, and of course, no spectators). She returned and won three races in the 2021 season, pushing her total to 69. Content that highlighted her status in that moment often noted that she was “back.” She was not back. She will never be “back” in that simplistic, sports-centric way.

“Coming back to racing after my father passed,” says Shiffrin. “So many people said, ‘Well, you’re back.’ And then I won again and people said, ‘Wow, you’re really back.’ Actually, I was still really struggling.”

At the end of the 2021 season, Shiffrin won four medals at the World Championships, including a gold in the combined downhill-slalom event. She won four more World Cup races before the ’22 Olympics, but did not perform well in Beijing. She skied out early in both the giant slalom (stunning) and slalom (jaw-dropping), and then, after finishing– but not contending — in the speed events of Super-G and downhill, skied out in the slalom portion of the combined. It was an inexplicably poor performance that was endlessly analyzed in real time, including by Shiffrin herself, because she does not shy from public self-analysis, however painful.

Since then, on the one hand, she acknowledges that the experience left scars, because of course it did. At the same time, “I mean, people ask me about it,” she says. “Less and less on a daily basis, but I try to get the message out that I’m moving on.” Some of it will always be a mystery. “In the slalom and giant slalom and the combined, I went out at the fourth gate, the fifth fate, the ninth gate, but I skied those gates exactly how I wanted to ski them. I’m not one to DNF, usually. And in those races, I did not picture myself skiing out of the course, that’s for sure. But I did.”

Ten months have passed since that experience; three years since the deaths of her grandmother and father. This year she won World Cup slaloms in Levi, Finland, on consecutive days, Nos. 75 and 76. And then on Thanksgiving weekend at Killington in central Vermont, a home game on a hill where she had won five slaloms in five starts, she finished fifth (and 13th in giant slalom).

In all of this, the personal tragedies and the racing struggles, her relationship with her sport has evolved. The giant slalom finish in Killington she assigns to training too little this year in the discipline. The rest is more ethereal, more mental. “I’m in the middle of this whole, season-long epiphany, and maybe the Olympics sparked it, of how hard it is to not only win a ski race, but to make it to the finish. That’s not something I’ve struggled with for most of my career, but when you think about it, in ski racing, and you add up the changing conditions, the amount we care, it’s mind-boggling to me what I’ve done for the last 12 years.”

If that sounds like a lack of confidence, maybe, but that’s too simple. Consider it both a mature appreciation and a return to her roots as a racer. Jeff Shiffrin taught his kids — Mikaela and her brother, Taylor — to embrace the process of skiing artfully and to let the wins flow from that. “Any time I’ve started a race trying to win, instead of skiing my best, I have not won that race. But there is such an adrenaline rush to our sport, before you even win the race, and I’m still here for that. If I was here just for the winning, I would have retired by now. Because I’m close to 82 and 86, people find that hard to believe, but it’s true. I’d be done by now.”

She’s not done. Shiffrin thinks about what might come next, and concludes what most athletes conclude: “Anything else I do in life is probably going to be hard, but most other things are not going to give me as much back as ski racing has.” The 2026 Olympics will be jointly hosted by the city of Milan and the mountain resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, an iconic ski racing venue. “Anything could happen, and I could decide to retire,” Shiffrin says. “But I don’t see it happening before the [next] Olympics.”

Unfinished business? (And to be fair, despite Beijing, Shiffrin has three Olympic medals; the only U.S. woman to have won more is Julia Mancuso, with four.) “Not medal-wise,” she says. “But the last three Olympics have been in places that have nothing to do with alpine skiing, normally.” [Boy is that right: Sochi, PyeongChang, and Beijing.] “Cortina is a place that I love. I’d like to experience an Olympics there.” Pause. “And of course if I’m racing, I’m going to want to be a medal contender, and there’s all that goes along with that.” A mouthful.

Before that, 82 and 86 await. Shiffrin will race a giant slalom and slalom this weekend in Sestriere, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympic and Paralympic alpine races. From there, the World Cup grinds on, with 13 more slaloms and giant slaloms beyond that, and numerous speed races, should Shiffrin decide to race those as she often has in the past. There are plenty of opportunities to finish this job, as it were.

Yet she understands, most of all, that nothing is promised, not even life, and certainly not ski race wins. “In one way, I know I’ll win another World Cup race,” she says. Presumably. “But I also know you can’t be certain.” And that is the lesson that will make the records most meaningful.

Jamie Anderson, Olympic snowboarding champion, announces pregnancy

Jamie Anderson
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Jamie Anderson, a two-time Olympic snowboarding champion, announced she is pregnant.

“The most precious and beautiful I’ve ever felt,” was posted on Anderson’s social media. “So incredibly grateful.”

Anderson, a 32-year-old who is engaged to 2018 Canadian Olympic snowboarder Tyler Nicholson, plans to return to competition in late 2023 and try for one more Olympics, a fourth for her, in 2026, according to People, which reported she is seven months pregnant.

A rep for Anderson later clarified that while she is planning on the 2026 Winter Games in Italy, she will take her competitive future on a season-by-season basis beyond that.

“I wasn’t planning on retiring with or without the baby, but I’m just so excited to be able to share this experience with our family,” Anderson said, according to the magazine. “I can see Tyler at the bottom of X Games with the little one. I think that would be really sweet.”

Anderson won the first two Olympic women’s slopestyle titles in 2014 and 2018. She placed ninth this past February after a tearful run-up to the Games.

Anderson also took silver in the first Olympic women’s big air event in 2018. Her 21 career X Games medals across all sites are tied for the record with Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris.

New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, 21, won Olympic slopestyle gold and big air silver in February after sweeping the titles at January’s X Games in Aspen, Colorado. Austria’s Anna Gasser, 31, repeated as big air gold medalist.

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