Lefko on curling: Homan faces tough challenge

Rachel Homan’s young foursome from Ottawa placed third in the round robin of the Women’s World Curling Championship in Riga, Latvia and plays the U.S., who finished fourth, on Saturday morning. (CP/Andrew Vaughan)

After Saturday, we’ll know just how mentally tough the current Canadian women’s curling champions really are as they face their latest challenge.

Rachel Homan’s young foursome from Ottawa placed third in the round robin of the Women’s World Curling Championship in Riga, Latvia and plays the U.S., who finished fourth, on Saturday morning. The winner of that matchup plays Scotland a few hours later while Sweden has already qualified for Sunday’s final, beating Scotland on Friday.

So it’s pretty simple at this point: Canada is in the tournament now for as long as it continues to win.

The Canadians lost in the opening round-robin game, which is the first time all season they began a tournament with a defeat. In fact, they lost only one game in all of the tournaments they had played to that point, beginning with the Rogers Masters cashspiel on the World Curling Tour in November.

Just prior to watching Sweden stone her team 8-4 with a final shot in the round robin, the normally-unfazed skip smiled, seemingly out of frustration. Even while winning so regularly this season, Homan has rarely expressed any emotion, joy or otherwise.

In fact, many people watching the 23-year-old wondered if she smiled at all.

Homan has a strong focus and both she and her team reset themselves after the loss to Sweden, going on to win four in a row. Canada beat Germany, Switzerland, China and Japan. Two of those teams – Germany and China – are skipped by previous winners of this tournament within the past four years.

Many talented Canadian teams have been humbled in the Worlds because of the difference in some of the rules. But the biggest thing has often been raising their psyches after winning the Canadian championships, which is really the major goal due to the tournament’s history and buildup.

The men’s and women’s World Championships are played outside of North America every other year to encourage the growth of the game. Some of the tournaments, such as this year’s, are played in small rinks in countries where curling hasn’t been largely developed.

Homan’s team employs a "mental strength" coach, which other teams may refer to as a sports psychologist, in addition to a coach. That infrastructure is helpful, even more so when dealing with adversity that hasn’t really been a factor this season.

The Homan team is playing in this tournament for the first time and has an average age of just 24, so even though they came into this tournament from a strong curling country, they were neophytes.

If Canada wins its remaining games, this will underline its quality.

Sweden and Scotland, which finished deadlocked for first with 10-1 records in the round robin, have vastly more experience in this tournament than Canada. So essentially, this is somewhat of an on-the-fly learning experience for the Canadian team, and some squads in this position have struggled because of their inexperience.

This tournament can also provide Homan’s team with some serious competition for some key events coming up. In April, they play in the Players’ Championship, the final Grand Slam for both the men’s and women’s teams on the World Curling Tour.

Homan’s team has a chance to win a $100,000 bonus with a victory in the Players’, having won the Masters, which was the fourth Slam on the women’s tour. Last fall, Sportsnet introduced bonuses for the men’s and women’s teams competing in some of the Slams in the 2012-13 World Curling Tour.

Homan’s team has all but locked up a qualifying spot for the Canadian Olympic trials in December. The winner advances to the Sochi Olympics next February.

The Homan team is scheduled to defend its title at next year’s Canadian championship around the same time, so the Canadian Curling Association has already ruled that if the defending national champion qualifies for the Olympics, the runnerup from last year will assume its place.

That, however, is a long ways off. Right now the focus for Homan’s team is on its latest challenge on the world stage.

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