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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.”

Jordan Wilimovsky qualifies for Tokyo Olympics in open-water swimming

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Open-water swimmer Jordan Wilimovsky is the first male athlete on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team.

Wilimovsky, who placed fourth and fifth in two distance events at the 2016 Rio Games, joined fellow open-water swimmers Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell in qualifying for Tokyo via the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

Wilimovsky, 25, placed fifth in the 10km event on Tuesday. Anderson and Twichell were second and sixth in the women’s 10km on Sunday. Top-10 finishers at worlds qualified for Tokyo.

German Florian Wellbrock won by two tenths of a second over French Olympic bronze medalist Marc-Antoine Olivier after 1 hour, 47 minutes in the water. Wilimovsky led with 600 meters left. Olympic 1500m freestyle champion Gregorio Paltrinieri also qualified for Tokyo in the open-water 10km by finishing sixth.

The other American, David Heron, was 25th, missing the Olympic team, but he can try again in the 1500m free in the pool at the Olympic trials next June.

Wilimovsky missed a medal in the Rio Olympic 1500m in the pool by 4.17 seconds, taking fourth. Three days later, he was fifth in the open-water 10km, 1.2 seconds out of bronze.

Wilimovsky, a Malibu native who redshirted at Northwestern to train for Rio, earned gold and silver in the 10km at the 2015 and 2017 World Championships.

A U.S. man has never earned an Olympic open-water medal. The event debuted at Beijing 2008.

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Ted Ligety scales back race schedule

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Two-time Olympic champion Ted Ligety is scaling back his race schedule as he enters the final portion of his decorated Alpine skiing career.

Ligety, a 34-year-old who has endured many injuries since his last World Cup win in 2015, said he will race strictly giant slaloms this year. The World Cup season starts in late October.

“So it’ll be a little bit easier schedule on my body,” Ligety said in a KPCW radio interview in his native Park City, Utah. “I’ll be able to be home a little bit more as well, and then we see. I mean, I would like to keep going as long as I feel like I can win races and feel healthy. That’s really the biggest part, and nowadays I have a 2-year-old son, and there’s more factors than there was when I was 25 years old.”

Ligety, nicknamed “Mr. GS” for his giant slalom prowess, has a 2014 Olympic gold medal and three world titles in that event.

He also owns an Olympic combined title from 2006 and world titles in the super-G and combined from 2013, but he hasn’t won a race in one of those disciplines since January 2014. And since then, he has undergone back and knee surgeries and dealt with hip problems.

“There’s a lot of hard miles on my body up to this point, but I’m still enjoying it,” said Ligety, whose 321 World Cup starts are the most among active Olympic medalists now that Lindsey Vonn and Aksel Lund Svindal have retired. “Right now, I feel really healthy and trying to get to a point where I feel I can win races. That’s the goal right now.”

Ligety, a four-time Olympian, has not publicly committed to a 2022 Olympic run.

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