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Ex-NFL Pro Bowl players try curling with 2022 Olympic goal

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Defensive lineman Jared Allen retired from the NFL in 2015 and wasn’t ready to give up on the competition he’d come to enjoy as a five-time All-Pro.

His solution: The Olympics.

The problem: He didn’t compete in any Olympic sports.

Less than a year later, Allen and three other former NFL stars — none with any prior experience — are attempting to qualify for the U.S. national curling championships against players who have been throwing stones for most of their lives.

It would be the first step toward competing in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

“Every team in the NFL — whether you’re hot garbage or the defending Super Bowl champions — every coach come August says the same thing: ‘We’re trying to win the Super Bowl,’” Allen said. “We come from that mentality, where we set lofty goals.

“Our short term goals are continually to get better: Fundamentals, strategy, sweeping. We know if we master these little things, it will take us a long way.”

A 12-year NFL veteran who spent most of his career with the Chiefs and Vikings, Allen was lamenting the end of his playing days when a friend dared him to try an Olympic sport. Allen toyed with the idea of badminton but rejected it as too taxing.

“We thought about curling. It was chill, and the winners have to buy the losers beer,” he said. “We thought it was a win-win.”

He rounded up former Rams quarterback Marc Bulger and Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck and tackle Michael Roos to form a team; all were Pro Bowl selections during their NFL career, and living near Nashville, Tennessee.

Adopting the name All-Pro Curling Team, they started from scratch in March and kept their plans under wraps until they felt like they had made enough progress.

“We wanted the reaction when we got on the ice to be ’Oh, how long have you guys been doing this?” Allen said in a telephone interview after practicing on a converted hockey rink in Nashville. “We were serious. We didn’t want it to seem like it was just some media hype, or just trying to stay relevant.”

The first test was in November, when Allen and Bulger — with two “regular” curlers — competed in the Curl Mesabi Classic in Northern Minnesota. Their first opponent: The gold medal-winning team from Pyeongchang led by four-time Olympian John Shuster.

They lost 11-3, giving up five points in the sixth end.

“Honestly, they were a little better than I had expected,” said Matt Hamilton, the second on that team. “All in all, Jared was technically pretty sound. But at the end of the day, I’ve seen thousands of curling shots and situations and that is ultimately going to win us more games.”

Although curling matches are often conceded when they are out of reach, the Olympians kept playing through the eighth (of 10) ends, to help the football players gain the experience they’ll need if they are going to be more competitive. (If it’s any consolation for Allen’s crew, Shuster’s rink also scored a five-ender against Sweden in the gold-medal match.)

“We had one bad end, and we just kept playing with them. We just wanted to be a sponge,” Bulger said. “The key was they knew we were taking it seriously. It wasn’t just us saying ‘We’re going to take over curling,’ kind of as a gimmick.

“We hope to play them again,” he said, “when we’re better.”

The All-Pros are back at it at the USA Men’s Challenge Round this weekend in Blaine, Minnesota, where they are competing for one of four remaining spots in next month’s national championships. (Top teams like Shuster’s have already qualified.)

They got off to a rough start in their first match, falling 10-1 to Steve Birklid’s Seattle-based rink on Thursday night. But, by hopping into the sport early in the Olympic cycle, they have almost three more years before the team for the 2022 Games is chosen.

Hamilton confessed he was put off at first about newcomers thinking they could reach the Olympics in a sport he’d worked a lifetime to master. But he also realized the publicity will be good for curling, which has struggled to break out of its niche as an every-four-years curiosity.

“If I really think I’m that good, I should be like ‘Bring it on!’” Hamilton said in an email to The Associated Press from a competition in Japan. “How much they respected the game, though, is what made me realize they aren’t making a mockery. We just have some extremely athletic individuals who respect sport but have a need to compete in their blood. Can’t disrespect that!”

All four football players agreed the reception they’ve received from lifetime curlers is decidedly different from a curler trying to break into the hyper-competitive NFL.

“Oh, he’d get smashed,” Allen said. “We’d go out of our way to test his mettle, for sure.”

Instead, they found the tight-knit but friendly community of curlers was eager to accept them. In their match against the Olympians, there was trash-talking — or banter, depending on whom you ask — and Hamilton even gave them some of his old curling gear.

“I looked at their broom heads and I was disgusted. I was wondering why these former pro football players couldn’t afford new broom heads,” he said. “So I went into my curling bag and gave them some gently used ones before the game. That really surprised Jared, claiming nothing like that would ever fly in football.”

Like many of those who only experience curling every four years on TV, the football players saw the sweeping and the shouting and underestimated how hard it is. “We played football, but it’s a lot of muscles we didn’t use,” Bulger said.

Sliding on the ice was also an adjustment, but the biggest challenge has been the strategy.

When he first started watching, Bulger said, he would see curlers setting up protective stones called guards and thought they were missing their shots.

“We just assumed that you throw to the button every time, and we learned that is not the game,” he said. “It’s like a novice chess player going against” a grandmaster.

But their NFL experience did help in other ways, priming them with not just physical fitness but also good practice habits, making decisions on the fly and improving through film study and coaching.

“Like any other sport, you have to learn, try to figure out how to get better,” Bulluck said. “Playing football at a very high level, being one of the best at the position once upon a time, to get to that level in anything you do you have to be able to take coaching.”

And, of course, they’re competitive.

“The message is: We want to bring attention to it. We want to have fun with it,” Allen said. “But we’re dead serious about what we’re trying to accomplish.”

James, Cipres ahead of pairs’ field at Europeans

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France’s Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres scored 76.55 points to break away from the pairs’ field at the European Championships on Wednesday. They lead Russian rivals Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov by 2.65 points. Nicole Della Monica and Matteo Guarise of Italy are third going into Thursday’s free skate with 73.70 points.

Results: Pairs’ short program

More to come

MORE: Behind the scenes at the European Championships: Day 1

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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What to watch in Olympic sports this week

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A busy week in Olympic sports is headlined by two marquee figure skating events: the U.S. Championships and European Championships. Reigning world champion Nathan Chen will try to win his third straight U.S. title in Detroit, and 2018 U.S. champion Bradie Tennell will attempt to repeat against an unpredictable ladies’ field. Coverage begins with the pairs’ short on Thursday at 5 pm, live on NBCSN. Meanwhile in Minsk, Belarus, reigning Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova of Russia will look to win her second straight European title, though she hasn’t had her best season: a rough showing last month left her fifth at the Russian national championships (PyeongChang silver medalist Yevgenia Medvedeva, who has struggled this season, was not named to the team). In men’s singles, 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Javier Fernandez of Spain seeks a seventh straight European title in what he says will be the final competition of his career.

Lindsey Vonn was expected to compete at this weekend’s World Cup in Germany, but after injuring her knee in her season debut last weekend, Vonn said on social media she was taking things “day by day.” The men’s alpine World Cup circuit continues in Kitzbuehel, at the renowned Hahnenkamm mountain in Austria, considered one of the most famous and thrilling races of the year. Olympians Bryce BennettTravis Ganong and Steven Nyman headline the American contingent. The Kitzbuehel races can be streamed live on NBC Sports Gold, and the speed races will air on Monday, January 28 on NBCSN.

ALPINE SKIING WORLD CUP — Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; Kitzbuehel, Austria

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 5:30 a.m. Men’s Super-G NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 4:00 a.m. Women’s Downhill Olympic Channel NBC Sports Gold
5:30 a.m. Men’s Downhill NBC Sports Gold
10:00 a.m. Women’s Downhill* NBCSN
Sunday 4:30 a.m. Men’s Slalom (Run 1) NBC Sports Gold
5:30 a.m. Women’s Super-G Olympic Channel NBC Sports Gold
7:30 a.m. Men’s Slalom (Run 2) NBC Sports Gold
9:00 p.m. Women’s Super-G* NBCSN

*Same-day delay All races stream live on NBC Sports Gold for “Snow Pass” subscribers and will have a replay of the event. Click here for more info.

BIATHLON WORLD CUP — Antholz-Anterselva, Italy

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Thursday 8:30 a.m. Women’s 7.5km Sprint OlympicChannel.com
12:00 p.m. Women’s 7.5km Sprint* Olympic Channel
Friday 8:30 a.m. Men’s 10km Sprint OlympicChannel.com
6:00 p.m. Men’s 10km Sprint* Olympic Channel
Saturday 7:30 a.m. Women’s 10km Pursuit OlympicChannel.com
9:30 a.m. Men’s 12.5km Pursuit OlympicChannel.com
8:30 p.m. Women’s 10km Pursuit* Olympic Channel
9:30 p.m. Men’s 12.5km Pursuit* Olympic Channel
Sunday 6:45 a.m. Women’s 12.5km Mass Start OlympicChannel.com
9:30 a.m. Men’s 15km Mass Start OlympicChannel.com
9:30 p.m. Women’s 12.5km Mass Start* Olympic Channel
10:30 p.m. Men’s 15km Mass Start* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay All races stream live on OlympicChannel.com.

BOBSLED AND SKELETON WORLD CUP — St. Moritz, Switzerland

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 3:30 a.m. Men’s Skeleton (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
5:15 a.m. Men’s Skeleton (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
7:00 a.m. Women’s Skeleton (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
8:30 a.m. Women’s Skeleton (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
4:00 p.m. Men’s Skeleton* Olympic Channel
5:00 p.m. Women’s Skeleton* Olympic Channel
Saturday 3:30 a.m. Two-Man Bobsled (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
5:00 a.m. Two-Man Bobsled (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
7:00 a.m. Women’s Bobsled (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
12:00 p.m. Two-Man Bobsled* Olympic Channel
3:00 p.m. Women’s Bobsled* Olympic Channel
8:30 a.m. Women’s Bobsled (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
Sunday 4:30 a.m. Four-Man Bobsled (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
6:00 a.m. Four-Man Bobsled (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
3:00 p.m. Four-Man Bobsled* Olympic Channel
8:00 p.m. Four-Man Bobsled* NBCSN

*Same-day delay All events stream live on OlympicChannel.com

CROSS-COUNTRY WORLD CUP — Ulricehamn, Sweden

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 6:00 a.m. Men’ 15km OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:00 a.m. Women’s 10km Olympic Channel OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 5:15 a.m. Women’s Relay OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:15 a.m. Men’s Relay OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
4:00 p.m. Women’s Relay* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay Live races stream on OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold

CYCLO-CROSS WORLD CUP — Pont-Château, France; Hoogerheide, Netherlands

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Monday 10:30 a.m. Men’ Elite* Olympic Channel
Sunday 7:30 a.m. Women’s Elite Olympic Channel OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
9:00 a.m. Men’s Elite OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
1:00 p.m. Men’s Elite* Olympic Channel
2:00 p.m. Men’s Elite* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay Live races stream on OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold

EUROPEAN FIGURE SKATING WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS — Minsk, Belarus

Day Time (ET) Event TV Streaming
Wednesday 3:00 a.m. Ladies’ Short Program NBC Sports Gold
10:45 a.m. Pairs’ Short Program NBC Sports Gold
4:30 p.m. Ladies’ Short Program NBCSN NBCSN
Thursday 4:00 a.m. Men’s Short Program NBC Sports Gold
11:25 a.m. Pairs’ Free Skate NBC Sports Gold
7:00 p.m. Men’s Short Program NBCSN NBCSN
11:00 p.m. Pairs’ Free Skate NBCSN NBCSN
Friday 4:40 a.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold
10:00 a.m. Ladies’ Free Skate NBC Sports Gold
2:00 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBCSN NBCSN
6:00 p.m. Ladies’ Free Skate NBCSN NBCSN
Saturday 3:15 a.m. Men’s Free Skate NBC Sports Gold
8:25 a.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold
11:00 a.m. Men’s Free Skate NBCSN NBCSN
Sunday 1:30 p.m. Ladies’ & Men’s Free Skate NBC NBC

U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS — Detroit, Michigan

Day Time (ET) Event TV Streaming
Thursday 5:00 p.m. Pairs’ Short Program NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
9:00 p.m. Ladies’ Short Program NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
Friday 4:00 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
8:00 p.m. Ladies’ Free Skate NBC NBC/NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 1:30 p.m. Pairs’ Free Skate & Men’s Short Program NBC NBC/NBC Sports Gold
7:00 p.m. Free Dance NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 3:30 p.m. Men’s Free Skate NBC NBC/NBC Sports Gold

FREESTYLE SKIING WORLD CUP –Blue Mountain, Ontario; Mt. Tremblant, Quebec; Seiser Alm, Italy

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 12:00 p.m. Ski Cross OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
1:30 p.m. Moguls Olympic Channel OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 6:30 a.m. Slopestyle OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
7:00 a.m. Slopestyle Olympic Channel

MEN’S HANDBALL WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Monday 12:00 p.m. Spain vs. Brazil Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
2:30 p.m. Croatia vs. Germany Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
Wednesday 12:00 p.m. Norway vs. Hungary Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
2:30 p.m. Denmark vs. Sweden Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
Friday 11:30 a.m. Semifinals #1 Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
2:00 p.m. Semifinals #2 Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
Sunday 8:30 a.m. Bronze Medal Game Olympic Channel Olympic Channel
11:30 a.m. Gold Medal Game Olympic Channel Olympic Channel

LUGE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 7:35 a.m. Doubles Sprint OlympicChannel.com
8:30 a.m. Women’s Sprint OlympicChannel.com
9:25 a.m. Men’s Sprint OlympicChannel.com
Saturday 5:05 a.m. Doubles (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
6:35 a.m. Doubles (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
8:00 a.m. Sprint Events & Doubles* NBCSN
8:15 a.m. Women’s Singles (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
10:05 a.m. Women’s Singles (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
7:00 p.m. Doubles* Olympic Channel
7:30 p.m. Women’s Singles* Olympic Channel
Sunday 5:00 a.m. Men’s Singles (Run 1) OlympicChannel.com
7:10 a.m. Men’s Singles (Run 2) OlympicChannel.com
9:45 a.m. Team Relay OlympicChannel.com
5:00 p.m. Men’s Singles* Olympic Channel
6:00 p.m. From Winterberg, Germany* NBCSN

*Same-day delay Live events stream on OlympicChannel.com

NORDIC COMBINED WORLD CUP –Trondheim, Norway

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 4:30 a.m. Men’s HS140 OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
8:00 a.m. Men’s 10km OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 3:00 a.m. Men’s HS140 OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:15 a.m. Men’s 10km OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold

SKI JUMPING WORLD CUP — Sapporo, Japan; Rasnov, Romania

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 4:00 a.m. Men’s Individual (Qualifying) OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 2:00 a.m. Men’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:30 a.m. Women’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
4:00 p.m. Men’s Individual* Olympic Channel
5:30 p.m. Women’s Individual* Olympic Channel
8:00 p.m. Men’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 6:30 a.m. Women’s Individual OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
6:30 p.m. Men’s Individual* Olympic Channel
8:00 p.m. Women’s Individual* Olympic Channel

*Same-day delay Live events stream on OlympicChannel.com and NBC Sports Gold

SNOWBOARDING WORLD CUP — Seiser Alm, Italy; Moscow, Russia

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 6:30 a.m. Slopestyle Olympic Channel Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold
10:30 a.m. Parallel Slalom Olympic Channel Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 10:30 a.m. Team Parallel Slalom OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold

NEW BALANCE INDOOR GRAND PRIX TRACK & FIELD  — Boston, Massachusetts

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Saturday 5:00 p.m. From Boston, Massachusetts NBCSN NBCSN/NBC Sports Gold

TRACK CYCLING WORLD CUP — Hong Kong

Day Time (ET) Event TV Stream
Friday 6:00 a.m. Day 1 — From Hong Kong OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Saturday 6:00 a.m. Day 2 — From Hong Kong OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Sunday 7:00 a.m. Day 3 — From Hong Kong OlympicChannel.com/NBC Sports Gold
Monday 12:00 p.m. Day 3 — From Hong Kong* Olympic Channel