REGINA — It’s an interesting dilemma for curlers this season: How do you jump out of the gate hot and send a message to the rest of field while still aim to peak for the Olympic Trials and Winter Games?
For Brad Gushue and Val Sweeting, it’s a little from column A and a little from column B.
Gushue and Sweeting ran right through the Tour Challenge posting unblemished 7-0 records with their respective teams to capture the Tier 1 titles Sunday in the season-opening Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event.
The St. John’s, N.L., native Gushue cruised past Norway’s Steffen Walstad 9-1 in the men’s final to earn his eighth career title in the series and seventh since third Mark Nichols returned to The Rock in 2014 to rejoin the squad, which also includes second Brett Gallant and lead Geoff Walker. Gushue threw at a 100 percent clip twice in the round-robin portion and dropped a 97 gem in the final.
While the record was perfect, it wasn’t exactly a perfect road to the championship as Gushue had to stave off elimination in the quarterfinals by stealing two in an extra end against Saskatoon’s Steve Laycock to win 7-5.
Gushue got back on track with his 5-2 semifinal victory over Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and then went all out to hammer Walstad in the final scoring two in the first, stealing three in the second and rolling away from there.
The reigning world champion and 2006 Olympic gold medallist made it clear in his post-game interview his best is yet to come.
“We’re certainly not peaking,” said Gushue, who earned $20,000 and qualified for the Humpty’s Champions Cup. “I think from what we’ve seen from all the teams this week is there were some misses and it was challenging with the frost. Even our team, we weren’t throwing it as well as we could at times. This is something to build off.
“You don’t win national championships and Olympic gold medals in September, but having said that this is still an important event for us and for curlers and all of the Grand Slams are. So, to win this is nice, it’s a notch on our belt and something we’re proud of.”
As Gushue alluded to with the frost issue, his semifinal match saw the 2014 Olympic gold medallist Jacobs throw a rocket for a triple takeout attempt in the fifth end. Jacobs made them all scatter, but only one Gushue stone left the house while the other two stopped short. That proved to be the game-changer leading to an easy open hit for Gushue to break a tie and score three.
“The shot that he played, I think without the frost he gets at least two of them and maybe three,” Gushue said. “It’s just a break for us really, to be quite honest, to get a three there. I assumed when he threw it we might have a shot for two, a little bit surprised when we had a shot for three, but we’ll certainly take it.”
Sweeting, who also won the Tour Challenge title a year ago in Cranbrook, B.C., had some close calls too earning three extra-end victories in the round-robin portion with two of them being the result of steals. Think about that: Sweeting could have easily gone 1-3 in round-robin play and missed the playoffs had a rock here or there gone the other way.
Thievery came into play again bookending the final as Sweeting gave up a count of three in the first end to Sweden’s Anna Hasselborg to fall behind early.
The Edmonton-based team of Sweeting, third Lori Olson-Johns, second Dana Ferguson and lead Rachel Brown never gave up and rallied to knot it up 5-5 in the sixth end with a double to score a trio of their own.
Sweeting set up the eighth and final end as best as she could to hide her shot rock and force Hasselborg to make a difficult one with her last. Hasselborg’s stone missed the target and Sweeting swiped a point to complete the comeback 6-5 and repeat as Tour Challenge champion for her third career Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling title.
“I think no matter what, win or lose, it’s all just about learning and focusing on the process heading into the trials,” said Sweeting, who also collected $20,000 and a berth in the Humpty’s Champions Cup. “I don’t think we want to make anything bigger or lesser than what it is. I think it’s all just about learning, win or lose, and what you take from it. That’s the important thing. We’ll definitely take everything that we can from this week and carry it forward.”
There’s no doubt it was a challenge, pun intended, for several teams at the Tour Challenge as they struggled with frosty ice conditions (not to mention few of them even have ice back home yet making off-season training tricky).
Rachel Homan’s Ottawa-based team was among those whose play was a little off during the week and missed the playoffs with a 1-3 round-robin record. That’s where the second half of our question at the start comes into play as a misfire at the Tour Challenge is nothing to get too rattled about while looking at the big picture.
“We lost two really close games … but we feel we could be 3-0,” Team Homan third Emma Miskew said after their win in the round-robin portion. “Both games could have gone either way, we had a shot to win and it just squeaked by. It’s been a struggle and we’re really just trying to stay patient. It’s the first event of the year, we’re not trying to peak in September, it’s just about being patient and taking our time.”
It helped both Gushue and Sweeting had some reps on the ice prior to the season starting skipping separate all-star mixed teams at the Everest Curling Challenge last month and — now here’s a big coincidence — pairing up to play together in the Canad Inns Mixed Doubles Championship the weekend prior to the Tour Challenge. Sweeting also benefited from having some ice back home in Edmonton over the summer, so her team was well-prepared for the season ahead.
The rest of the field should step up their game at the next Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling event, the Masters (Oct. 24-29 in Lloydminster, Sask.), but also expect Gushue and Sweeting to raise the bar they’ve set as well.