Curling rinks are similar to rock bands. Each consists of four players, three of whom tend to be dwarfed by one figure who calls the shots and keeps the whole thing together.
In the case of the most dominant curling rink in the world today, the lead character is a corporate lawyer and the namesake of the team. A woman as well-known in the expanding world of curling as any ever was. An incomparable skip whose forceful determination is as integral to her team’s success as Mick Jagger’s charisma, John Lennon’s genius or Gwen Stefani’s style. And just like a rock band, most rinks can trace their origin to a mythologized moment when a youthful encounter led to a historic union. In this case, that moment occurred when a 16-year-old Jennifer Jones flagged a 15-year-old Jill Officer over to the Coke machines in the back of Winnipeg’s Highlander Curling Club and asked if she’d consider forming a new team. “I had no idea that moment would come to define a large part of my life,” says Officer.
In the 24 years since joining forces, Jones and Officer have won the Scotties Tournament of Hearts five times, picked up an Olympic gold, a world championship and more Grand Slam titles than any other duo in the women’s game. But more than that, they’ve done what few curlers have managed to do in a quarter of a century of play: They’ve stuck together. “I can’t see myself playing for anyone else,” says Officer. “When I retire, it will be as a member of Team Jones.”
Kevin Martin, the former world champ and Olympic gold medallist regarded by many as the greatest male curler of all time, offers a simplistic view of Jones’s perennial dominance of the sport. “She wins all the time because she’s better than everyone else. She works harder than everyone else. She spends thousands of hours on the rink,” he says.
The daughter of two hobby curlers, Jones gravitated toward the sport as a toddler, pressing her face to the glass in Winnipeg’s St. Vital Curling Club and watching the rocks slide down the ice. Four decades later, that curling club—located in the parking lot of a Loblaws superstore—has become one of the most celebrated in the world, its front facade now covered with a wall-to-wall mural commemorating its connection to the 2014 Olympic gold.
After emerging on the women’s tour as Canada’s national junior champions, it took six years for Team Jones to battle through the ranks of world-class rinks competing out of Winnipeg. In 2002, they made their first Scotties appearance. Three years later, with her first national championship on the line, Jones crouched into the hack with the hammer in hand. Down two points in the final end against Ontario’s Jenn Hanna, who had a well-guarded rock on the button, Jones executed what Olympic silver medallist Mike Harris called “the best shot I’ve ever seen to win a game.”
Martin, who can still see that shot in his head, recalls how in that moment, Jones looked set to dominate the tour. And yet for the next three years, that didn’t happen. “She still had some flaws in her game back then,” Martin explains. “Her Achilles was her power shots.” She’d find herself in clutch situations and in need of a heavy hammer but unable to deliver. From 2006 to 2008, Martin watched as that one weakness held Jones back from greatness. But he also watched as she practised hour after hour perfecting her hammer until she was able to fire a pistol whenever needed. Now powerful, accurate and able to visualize the game in ways few others can, she has, for nearly eight years, seemed unfazed and able to repeatedly carry her team to high-pressure victories.
Curling may be a team sport, but it can get quite personal. Skips routinely cut teammates in order to reinvigorate their rinks. Jones spent years with a steady rotation of leads until 2008, when she added Dawn McEwen to the top of her lineup. Regarded by many as the most accurate and stable lead in the women’s game, McEwen been Hanna’s lead on the opposite end of the ice in that 2005 Scotties final and was at the time looking to move from Ottawa to Winnipeg in order to be closer to her then boyfriend.
Success followed quickly with McEwen in the lineup. Winning three consecutive Scotties tournaments from 2008 to 2010, Jones looked primed to represent Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Games until illness during the Olympic trials resulted in a 2-5 record. Then, out of nowhere, Jones opted to “shake things up” by ousting the eldest member of her squad, leaving Cathy Overton-Clapham hurt, blindsided and replaced at third by the young and energetic Kaitlyn Lawes, who’d skipped her way to bronze at the world juniors two years earlier.
Together, the foursome of McEwen, Officer, Lawes and Jones finished the 2010–11 season as the top-ranked team in the country, but not without losing in what the media labelled a grudge match against Overton-Clapham’s new rink at that season’s Scotties.
Lawes inherited skip duties for the start of 2012–13 while Jones gave birth to her first child, a daughter she had with Glenn Howard’s former second, Brent Laing. In her absence, the team dropped in the standings as Rachel Homan and her Ottawa-based rink jumped into top spot. Jones returned to the ice months before the 2013 Olympic trials and began dominating the tour once more. She won two Grand Slams in the opening months of the 2013–14 season then won the trials in Winnipeg before going on to Sochi where she became the first skip to run through the Olympics undefeated.
For a time shortly after Sochi, Officer says it was unclear whether the best team in curling would even stick together. Each member had accomplished what they’d set out to by winning the gold, but to do so again, they had to agree to four more years of commitment to both each other and their sport. “I’m 40 years old,” explains Officer. “As a sweeper, my body is taking a toll. Jennifer and I talked about it. I decided either we all stayed together or I was done.”
The team enters its second post-Sochi season as Canada’s top rink and looking to secure a spot at the 2017 Olympic trials. But they do so without the stabilizing factor of their long-time lead as McEwen prepares to deliver a baby. McEwen, who has missed only one game with the team in the past eight years, will be replaced in the opening tournaments by alternate Jennifer Clark-Rouire. McEwen will be back by winter, though, ready, she says, to help her team sweep their way to more and more victories.