"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"
That opening quote from A Tale of Two Cities perfectly summarizes one of the strangest emotional tsunamis I’ve ever experienced. And it happened on the medal podium at the Olympic Winter Games.
Our curling team wasn’t expected to represent Canada the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan – we were the upstarts from Toronto, challenging Brier and world champions from Winnipeg and Edmonton. The press had us ranked 10th out of the 10 teams competing for the Olympic berth, but we beat ’em all to wear the red maple leaf. That is a story in itself.
Two months later we were on a roll in Japan, winning every game we played – scoring multiple points in the first end, over and over again. We finally lost the last round-robin match against Norway as it was a meaningless game – the opposing skip didn’t even play. We finished as the first seeds heading into the playoffs.
Then we crushed the U.S. team in the semi-final. It was 9-0 playing the eighth end of that game, and we literally gave them a point so they could score and then concede the match. We were steamrolling and everyone knew it. We were in the gold medal final the next day.
Our skip had been feeling sick the previous day or so, coughing and hacking, but he still shot the lights out in the semi. The running joke on our team was that when Mike Harris felt under the weather, he actually played better. No big deal.
Unfortunately, that chicken came home to roost in the final against our friends from Switzerland. Right from the start we knew Mike had a problem. The Swiss came out super-aggressive in the very first end – a great strategy, it must be said – and Mike had to bail us out… but he missed. Twice and badly. He wasn’t even close.
Things got worse. And then even worse. We had never been in this position before, trailing so badly in a huge championship game with an ailing team captain. No curling team ever had, because this wasn’t even a Brier or world championship final – this was the Olympic championship, with billions of people watching on television.
It wasn’t all Mike’s fault. Once we saw how much he was struggling, we folded like a deck of cards. We started missing too.
I don’t remember much of the game itself, some 18 years later it’s all fog and mist. There was nowhere to run or hide. We were getting crushed, and Olympic television rules said the match had to continue through at least eight ends. We couldn’t shake hands and end the torture for at least another hour.
I do remember talking to a teammate between shots, suggesting that we look for a small mouse hole in the wall somewhere that we could crawl into.
I saw our family and friends in the stands; usually they were stomping and cheering and waving flags… but not this time. There was dead silence, and their faces conveyed a mixture of sadness, concern and horror.
I wanted to die.
It finally ended and we had a few moments to ourselves in the dressing room. I have no recollection of anyone speaking. Now it was time to put on the specific Canadian team gear earmarked for climbing the podium and receiving a medal. We’d be marching out again in about 10 minutes or so.
That march out was… better. Much, much better. In fact, it was joyful. I heard the crowds cheering, I heard the organizers blasting the theme song of the Games, and all the anger and misery washed away. I realized that, hey, I was an Olympic silver medallist… and who the hell would have predicted that two months earlier, let alone ever?
We had done what no Canadian men’s team managed to do – WE were the ones entering the history books. Our young team of loveable goofs who hadn’t even represented our province before, let alone the entire nation.
I couldn’t believe the difference in emotions. Moments ago I was in agony, and now I was super-pumped. Then I received the medal, and the bouquet of flowers and the good feelings just kept coming. I saw one teammate break down in tears, and the rest of us couldn’t help laughing – this was our “beastmode” teammate, you see, the one guy who I figured would never, ever cry for any reason.
(We later discovered that he saw his father crying in the stands, and that is what set him off)
Then came the gold medallist’s national anthem. It was time to remove the now-iconic Canada “poor boy” cap and listen to… another country’s song.
And just as abruptly, the misery and sadness descended on me again.
I’ve heard the Swiss anthem many times since, mostly while watching the nine Olympic Games that have taken place since “mine.” It’s a fine anthem, and I bear it no malice. I certainly have nothing but good things to say about the Swiss team – they are a great bunch of guys, in fact we had spent time with them before the playoffs at our family’s hotel near the rink, with them as our guests.
Their skip, Patrick Hürlimann, was good friends with Mike and had spent lots of time in Canada in the past. I remember Patrick, years earlier during one Canadian summer, trying to catch a baseball from a long pop fly, and it was absolutely hilarious to watch (suffice to say Swiss folks don’t really play baseball… at all). Patrick ended up marrying a Canadian girl, and they named their first daughter Briar, after Canada’s “Brier”, the national men’s curling championship.
But that song was the last thing I wanted to hear. I wanted the Canadian anthem. I had expected to hear it when I woke up that morning. The entire curling world had been waiting all day for the mighty Canadians to dismantle the Swiss, just as we did in the round-robin, just as we had done to so many teams that week, and just as our women’s team from Saskatchewan – led by Sandra Schmirler, aka “Schmirler The Curler” – had taken out Denmark in the women’s final earlier that day.
I remember actually gritting my teeth during the anthem. I hated this. I was in turmoil. I didn’t know what to think or how to act. Please, God, get me out of here.
The song mercifully ended and just like that, I was engulfed in happiness again. The ceremony was over and people were clamouring to see the medal – officials, Japanese volunteers and other competitors. We were hugging the Swiss and the Norwegians, who won the bronze. I walked over to the stands and got hugs from our cheering squad, the family and friends who had travelled over 10,000 kilometres to share the moments with us.
I felt great. After feeling terrible, and then great, after first feeling truly horrible. I felt dizzy. I feel dizzy now just thinking about it, and writing these words.
It took some time, later that night, to realize how much my emotions had jumped around in one time span. I was exhausted from the effort of riding a crazy roller coaster – up and down, then up and down again. I was staring at my silver medal, and it was the most beautiful thing in the world, but my jaw hurt from gritting my teeth on the podium.
When I got back to my room, the Japanese had placed another batch of little notes and trinkets on my bed. They had been doing that all week, starting from the day of our initial arrival. They were sourced from school children in the area (Karuizawa, our “curling town” outside of Nagano) and their notes told us a little about themselves, their lives in Japan, and wished us luck in our competition. They made little paper dolls for us, little Canadian flags and whatnot.
When I saw the latest offerings, I broke down in tears. I must have cried for hours that night, just by myself in my little room. I let it all out… the stress, the frustration, the anger, and yes – the joy, the sheer JOY of accomplishment.
Years have passed and I no longer play – I retired from competition about five years later. I still work in my sport, however, and it’s been great fun watching a new generation of curling athletes ride their own roller coasters.
But the one thing I will never forget is the wild range of emotions I felt on that day, and specifically in that crazy period of time on the medal podium.
(The boys and I at the 2009 Olympic Trials)