The art of curling has changed. Robots pass Canada through

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Krista McCarville’s Northern Ontario rink, like all the others competing at the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials in Saskatoon, hopes to represent Canada at the Beijing Olympics. But the way his team got there is a bit unusual.

They spend most of their time curling in training, not competing as is the norm in Canada. And because of all that training in Thunder Bay, she only had to read the ice once in those high pressure games at the SaskTel Center.

McCarville, Kendra Lilly, Ashley Sippala and Sarah Potts have spent years tamping down their natural curling styles to ensure they glide on the same delivery line, release stone the same, and apply the same spin.

That’s how they got to this stage, alongside Canada’s best, while competing only about a fifth more often than the top teams, their coach Rick Lang said.

Using targeted team training to create and maintain the exact same curling technique, or as close to it as possible, is something that is increasingly being done in other countries, including those who beat the Canada on the world stage.

But that’s still rare among the teams here, says Lang, the two-time world champion who has long coached Curling Canada’s national team. It is also controversial. In fact, when Lang talks about this, he’s sometimes accused of wanting to turn curlers into robots.

“I’m not talking about making robots out of them,” Lang says. “Sometimes I’m interpreted that way. I call them artists. We have a lot of teams in Canada who are artists. They make clichés, but they sort of do it their own way.

“But the game has changed to the point where the technical level is so high and precise that if you don’t do that you’re going to be beaten. “

This is already happening more often than Canadian curlers would like, especially on the world’s most important stages: the Olympics and world championships.

Canada left the 2018 Olympics without a men’s or women’s curling medal for the first time since the sport was included in 1998. (Canada won gold in the mixed doubles debut.) They also missed the podium at the world championships this year. .

McCarville and her teammates, who made the decision years ago to put their jobs down – she is an elementary school teacher – and families first, are seen as underdogs at the Olympic Trials, which run until November 28. . But the fact that they’re there and as good as they are, with so little competition, is the result of years of training to increase their curling symmetry, she says.

“I can put the broom down for myself and the exact same ice cream for Ashley, Sarah, Kendra,” said McCarville. “It makes my life a thousand times easier.”

Kerri Einarson’s Manitoba Rink takes things in a more uniquely Canadian way. They often practice individually because of professional and family commitments; they compete a lot, which keeps their rankings high and the sponsors happy; and they get together to practice a day or two before big events like the trials.

We each have our own style, which makes it a bit difficult for me, ”says Einarson. “But as long as they’re consistent with that, I can just remember who I need to give some more ice cream to, who I don’t. Not everyone will be structured exactly the same and will not launch exactly the same.

But that’s what happens with the best teams in other countries, says Gerry Peckham, High Performance Director for Curling Canada.

Countries in Asia and Europe that do not have the same history and depth of talent select curlers – rather than having teams that rise to the top, like Canada does – and train them to full time in high performance centers with an Olympic performance podium specifically in mind.

“When you testify to the technical excellence of Asian teams, you marvel at it,” Peckham says. “They are so precise and so biomechanically sound. “

In many sports, the training-to-competition ratio is around 90 percent to 10 percent, but few curling teams in Canada would even hit the 50/50 mark, says Lang: “The culture in Canada is that you get better by playing a lot. “

This culture must change if Canada is to keep up with the increasingly competitive global curling environment, he said.

Of course, as Lang is well aware from his time at Curling Canada, the elite system itself drives teams to compete a lot.

There is so much depth to Canadian curling that the best need to aim for points in competitions to participate in major televised events, which are crucial to attracting and retaining sponsors. They also have to compete a lot to fight, like they do in Saskatoon, just for the chance to make it to the Olympics.

And then there is the money.

“The reality in Canada is that none of our athletes make enough money from curling to make the world go round,” says Peckham. “Especially when their world includes spouses, family members, and upcoming college programs for kids.”

So unlike full-time curlers in some other countries, Canada’s best all have day jobs. This means that even though a team is based in the same city and some have members in other provinces, their work schedules and family life can make it difficult to regularly train at the same time with a coach.

And without that piece of the puzzle, there’s little hope of achieving the kind of team symmetry Lang and Peckham see elsewhere – and worry about.

“There is no question that other countries have caught up to Canada in terms of performance and in many cases have passed us,” Lang said.

“You have to ask yourself why and how this happens. “

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