SOCHI, Russia – The U.S. men’s curling team made a roster change Sunday.
Jeff Isaacson, a junior high science teacher, gave up his spot on the four-man rink for its next to last game. The U.S., already eliminated from medal contention, made a group decision to give alternate Craig Brown, 38, his first Olympic action.
The new-look Americans dropped to 2-6 with a defeat to Sweden, but the result didn’t lessen the gesture.
“All of us thought, for the sacrifice [Brown] made for us, we could put him on the ice,” U.S. skip John Shuster said. “We’re not going to lose anything, either, because he’s a great player.”
Some Olympic sports teams were allowed to bring alternates to Sochi, but only in curling were those alternates official U.S. Olympic Team members. Even if they never got called up for a game.
It started shortly after November’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Fargo, N.D. Teams of four men and four women vied in a tournament to earn the berths in Sochi. Rinks skipped by Shuster and Erika Brown, Craig’s older sister, prevailed. The spoils of winning trials included the opportunity to add a fifth member to the teams.
Shuster asked Craig Brown (pictured above), whom he played with for a short time after the Vancouver Olympics. Craig Brown had skipped a team that fell short at trials.
“I guess they thought that I was the guy who could help them out the most,” said Brown, who wears glasses and stands 5-foot-7. “So it was an honor to be asked. Obviously, initially, I always would have hoped that I was bringing my own team here, but I feel like I’m part of this team as well.”
Brown spent the Team USA’s first seven games in Sochi watching on the bench next to a pair of U.S. coaches. The entire team hoped he wouldn’t be able to play at all, because that would have meant the U.S. was performing well and advancing with unbreakable chemistry.
That didn’t happen. The U.S. was left to play for pride after a loss Sunday morning. That’s when Isaacson approached Craig Brown.
“I checked with [Isaacson] three or four times to make sure that he was sure about the decision,” Brown said. “Then I thanked him, and I went and curled and tried my best. I played pretty well. Could have made a couple more shots. But not bad.”
Does Brown consider himself more of an Olympian now that he’s registered game time?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll have to figure that out over time. I came here really not expecting to get out on the ice, but it was nice to be out there. It felt good to play.”
The U.S. women’s alternate has yet to play in Sochi with one game left Monday. That’s Allison Pottinger, who, unlike Craig Brown, already has one Olympics under her belt from 2010.
(Craig Brown actually attended the 1988 Olympics at age 12 to watch his sister curl at age 15 and was a mixed zone worker at the 2002 Olympics, but he never made an Olympic Team before now)
Pottinger’s rink lost in the Olympic Trails finals to Erika Brown’s rink. Twelve hours later, she said she received the request from Erika Brown, the woman who dashed her Olympic dreams to join her team in Sochi.
“I’m still on this low, and my whole team’s depressed,” Pottinger remembered. “You need to press the reset button a little bit. They called, and I was thrilled and all. At the same time I was like, oh my gosh, I don’t know. My knee-jerk reaction was yes, but I checked with my team, and they were really supportive of it. They said you’ve got to go. It’s a great opportunity.”
What does an alternate do at the Olympics, if they’re not playing?
“The little things that you don’t really notice,” Pottinger said.
Pottinger totes a paisley bag for such things.
Teammate Ann Swisshelm recently needed a cough drop. There Pottinger was, reaching into her bag.
“It’s like nothing, but it’s a big deal,” Pottinger said. “Otherwise it’s a nuisance, right? Taking care of all those little nuisances and having a positive attitude.”
One time somebody needed a tissue.
“I got it!” Pottinger said.
“What else do you have in that bag?” USA Curling director of high performance Derek Brown asked.
ChapStick. Advil. Deodorant. A nail file. Safety pins.
“I have like this whole pack of stuff,” Pottinger said.
The two alternates Pottinger and Craig Brown have spent a lot of time together, late nights at the Ice Cube Curling Center.
“We talk a little bit about rocks,” Pottinger said. “It’s nice to have a buddy.”
Their biggest duty is what’s called “matching rocks,” throwing competition stones after the completion of play in preparation for the next day’s games to gauge their variance. Not all stones are created equal.
Pottinger and Craig Brown normally don’t get back to the Olympic Village until 11:30 at night. Sometimes, the teams have to be up at 6 for morning matches.
“[Pottinger] is working probably harder than we are,” Swisshelm said.
Pottinger and Craig Brown will return to their normal teams after the Olympics.
Pottinger will actually fly home on Friday, two days before the Closing Ceremony, to prepare for the National Championships that begin March 1.
Craig Brown will be there, too. His rink is on an alphabetical qualified list of eight, eight spots above Shuster’s.