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Posted: Feb 28, 4:11p ET | Updated: Mar 7, 8:26p ET

Curling basks in Vancouver spotlight

Competitors hope international exposure sparks interest in the game

VANCOUVER (AP) -- John Morris hustled to the edge of the curling ice and grabbed the Maple Leaf from his sister.

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He carried the flag onto the ice and lifted it to share with an arena, and a country. From British Columbia to his home in neighboring Alberta and all the way to the Maritimes, Canada's second straight gold medal in men's curling resonated well beyond Vancouver.

"Canada's been helping us out all week cheering us on with an incredible crowd and we wanted to give a little back to them and thank them," Morris said following Canada's 6-3 victory over Norway on Saturday. "It's still sort of surreal that we have a gold around our neck. It's the best day of my life right now."

Skip Kevin Martin finally got his gold after a near miss in 2002 at Salt Lake City, where he lost to Norway by an inch on his final rock. This time, Martin captured Canada's 13th gold medal -- sending the country to the top of the gold standings -- by beating the Norwegians in their fancy pants.

Cheryl Bernard's Canadian women from Calgary settled for silver after losing on her last rock to defending champion Sweden on Friday.

"It's a bugger. Cheryl certainly deserved to win that game," Martin said. "But that's why it's played on ice. It's a real tough loss, but over the next few months, I think she'll go, 'Geez, that was pretty darn good.'"

Bernard was heartbroken and blamed herself for her misses. She didn't attend the men's gold-medal match Saturday alongside teammates, who sat next to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

While a Canadian double would have been ideal, the hosts still had plenty to cheer about.

"There's a million curlers in Canada who would kill to be in our spot right now," third Susan O'Connor said.

Fans far and wide were drawn to Canada's No. 2 sport. And the Olympic curlers from every nation hope the exposure will spark interest in the game. Many fans took time to try to understand the strategy and idiosyncrasies. New curling clubs already are being formed in warmer places like Florida and North Carolina.

Thomas Ulsrud's good-spirited Norwegian team made its own statement on the world stage thanks in large part to those outrageous diamond-print pants.

"We have yet to come home and see if curling has changed in Norway, if there will be more people watching and more people playing," said Christoffer Svae, who found the pants and bought them for his teammates to wear. "If that is so, then we have done our goal here."

Jay Leno, "Saturday Night Live" and others poked fun at curling, often dismissed as shuffleboard on ice. But as far as the curlers are concerned, any talk about their sport is a good thing.

The Canadian men showed that even in curling it takes a strong commitment to fitness, nutrition and hard work to reach the top. And a little help from your friends.

Martin, called the "Michael Jordan of curling" by U.S. skip John Shuster, considered the cowbell-clanging, anthem-singing crowd as the team's fifth man.

"Well, we need to have more Olympic Games in our country, don't we?" he said. "The crowd is a major factor, when you have that extra player on the field. It's incredible."

The U.S. teams found out they have a lot of work to do -- the men and women both finished last with 2-7 records. USA Curling plans to evaluate its structure and selection of national teams. The Americans qualified almost a full year before the Olympics. The Canadians won their spot in their December trials.

It worked well for the home country.

Morris' shooting in the third spot Saturday -- a triple takeout and a pair of clutch double takeouts -- earned him "MVP" honors from Martin.

The theme on the Canadians' team Web site has long read, "golden dreams ... the road to 2010."

It was quite a ride. Martin hasn't ruled out making another, though he will be 47 leading to the 2014 Sochi Games.

At 11-0, Martin's foursome became the first since curling returned as a medal sport in 1998 to go unbeaten on the way to gold. The only other time came in 1924, when Britain stayed perfect in a four-team event that was later ruled part of the Olympic program.

Playing at home brought unwavering support but also immense pressure. Martin & Co. embraced every part of this journey.

Canada didn't win in its previous Winter Olympics at home. It took the bronze in Calgary in 1988, when curling was still a demonstration sport. The Canadian women brought home gold that year.

"We're so proud of the whole experience," Canadian second Marc Kennedy said. "It's a great day for Canada. No one can ever take it away from us."

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