Thriving under pressure, Team Fleury stays perfect as do-or-die games draw near

Tracy Fleury shoots a stone during the Masters women's quarterfinals on Oct. 23, 2021, in Oakville, Ont. (Anil Mungal)

SASKATOON — Every other afternoon game had wrapped up already, and Sherry Middaugh figured this was the perfect scenario: All eyes at Sasktel Centre were on her skip, Tracy Fleury, who was about to throw the final rock in an extra end that would make or break the game.

“Pressure,” Middaugh said, later. “That’s going to mimic being in the playoffs.”

In other words, the moment served as perfect preparation for what could be ahead at Canada’s Olympic Trials when the do-or-die games get underway this weekend, if you ask the coach of the No. 1-ranked women’s team in the world.

And when Fleury, in that pressure cooker, floated her rock by a guard and stuck for three and the decisive win, she smiled a bit and then slid down the ice to give her teammates and coach high-fives. And then she slid off the ice.

“I’m sure she’s stressed and a bundle of nerves inside,” Middaugh said, following her team’s fifth straight win at Canada’s Olympic curling trials on Wednesday afternoon. “But she really doesn’t show it.”

Fleury sure doesn’t, though the skip did admit it was “nice to feel some nerves out there,” during this latest victory, even if you’d need a microscope to spot them.

“She’s got the perfect temperament for skip,” Middaugh said. “And you don’t often see that.”

The Sudbury-born Fleury and her team are the lone perfect rink on the women’s side here at Olympic trials, with three games to go before the weekend’s playoff round begins (the top three teams advance).

“It was nice for us to pull off a close one,” Fleury said after that 9-6 extra ends win over Jacqueline Harrison’s team from Hamilton, Ont. “It gives us a little bit of confidence.”

Just a little bit of confidence — is that all? Fleury, lead Kristin MacCuish, second Liz Fyfe and third Selena Njegovan should be feeling more than a little confident. The team came into this event riding a high, after winning three titles earlier this season, including defending their Masters title last month on the Grand Slam of Curling circuit.

Coach Middaugh is riding a hot streak herself. The four-time Scotties bronze medallist (last in 2008) won her third straight Ontario senior women’s championship over the weekend, and had to miss the first two games here to defend her title. She didn’t arrive in Saskatoon until Monday morning.

“I felt very guilty at our event, and watching the line scores and just wanting to be here,” she said, but the team had done a mock-up of this scenario, knowing beforehand of the conflict. And Team Fleury got off to a hot start here, earning wins against another Manitoban foursome led by Kerri Einarson and then defeating Edmonton’s Kelsey Rocque.

Fleury had been curling near-perfect heading into Wednesday, and despite opening with a deuce against Harrison, she had a few misses in this latest win. She sent her final rock long in the second end and Harrison stole two to even things up, and the teams went back and forth to force the 11th and final end. Fleury curled a tournament-low 73 per cent.

“We got away with kind of a sloppy game and still got a win out of it,” Middaugh said. “It’s in our hands, which is great — we don’t have to rely on someone else. The games are under our belt, there’s three more and we just have to continue on.”

Team Jones skip Jennifer Jones throws against Team Harrison during Draw 3 of the 2021 Canadian Olympic curling trials in Saskatoon, Sunday, November 21, 2021. (Liam Richards/CP)

Fleury’s final round-robin game comes against the fellow Manitoban rink led by the legend that is Jennifer Jones. It’s Jones (she’s 5-1 here) that Fleury beat in the final of the Masters last month.

Should Team Fleury come out of these Trials as the winners, Middaugh, who has a busy schedule — she has another curling bonspiel in a week-and-a-half — will be sure to clear her schedule for the Olympics. She placed second at Trials herself back in 2013.

“I hate to say it, I would probably miss my own daughter’s wedding,” she said of the Games, laughing. “But thankfully, I don’t need to.”

That’s still a long way away, of course. For now, Team Fleury will continue doing what they’re doing, relaxing between games and trying to continue to rack up wins.

Being 5-0 is a good start, though. Said Fleury, just a few minutes after she’d thrown that last rock in that pressure-filled situation: “It feels good.”

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