There were 1,000 or so spectators in a space that could hold three times as many, but the TV lights and cameras goosed the energy at the Revolution Place arena in Grande Prairie, Alta. It was the first week of December, and Kelsey Rocque’s rink was staring down their fourth round-robin game in the Canada Cup of Curling; they’d gone 1-2 so far, so this was do-or-die. As the 21-year-old skip stood at the back of the rings watching the other team throw lead rock in the first end, her eyes fell on the jacket of the opponent in front of her: “JONES.” Rocque felt like she needed to pinch herself. She was months out of the junior ranks and squaring off against gold medallist and five-time national champion Jennifer Jones. Curling is funny like that: One day you’re watching your long-time idols on TV, the next you’re toe-to-toe with them.
But Rocque and her Edmonton-based rink—lead Jen Gates, second Taylor McDonald and third Laura Crocker—are hardly starry-eyed pushovers. They came together as a team a year ago, but Rocque’s teammates are comparatively seasoned veterans on the women’s circuit (even though they’re in their early 20s), and their skip is a level-headed newcomer who fully expected this season to be an enrolment in the school of hard knocks. “I knew I was going to have to lose a few games before I’d start to win,” Rocque says. “I think I’ve learned a ton this year.”
Her surname suggests she was destined for a curling career, but Rocque was all about dance until she was 11, when a friend invited her to bring-a-buddy day at a curling club in her hometown of Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. She fell in love: It was a small-team sport different from any other. Two years later, Rocque began curling competitively and dance was forgotten.
Rocque won the Canadian and world junior titles in 2014 and 2015—McDonald was also on the 2014 teams—making her the first Canadian woman to win consecutive world junior championships. Crocker, McDonald and Gates competed last season with Chelsea Carey as their skip, but the team announced last March that Carey was moving on and Rocque would join them.
At first, it was up in the air whether Rocque or Crocker would skip. Then, in the spring, the two of them sat down at an Edmonton Starbucks to talk it over. Crocker asked her new teammate why she loved skipping. “I told her I just loved throwing last rock—I loved the pressure, and when the game is on the line, I want that rock in my hand,” Rocque says. “She kind of smiled and said, ‘Yeah, you’re definitely going to be skipping next year.’”
In spite of Rocque’s measured expectations about her first year on the circuit, her rink made it to the quarterfinals of their first tournament, the Tour Challenge, before being knocked out. Since then, there have been plenty of learning experiences, but their young skip has proven herself to be an ace shot-maker. At the National in Oshawa, Ont., in November, Rocque’s rink faced Rachel Homan, who has been utterly dominant this season. In the fourth end, Homan sat four stones in the house late, but Rocque threw a bullet down the line that missed her own guard by an impossible margin—if the rock had been a man’s face, she might have removed his five o’clock shadow—to take out three of Homan’s stones. Limiting Homan to two points in that end was in fact a virtuoso victory for Rocque.
This season, she’s learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and trying to leave behind her superstitious rituals (last year at the world juniors, she decided to wear the same socks until her team lost; they went undefeated, with all the fragrance that implies). On the to-do list for Rocque’s rink are representing Alberta at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in the next year or so and accumulating enough points at Grand Slam events to qualify for the pre-trials for the 2018 Olympics (they’re guaranteed a spot in the Champions Cup this spring). Given the way things are going so far, they probably won’t need help from any magical socks.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.