After nine years of calling the shots at skip, Val Sweeting is ready to take on more of a support role during the next Olympic cycle.
Sweeting thought about dialling it back before but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself until last week when her Edmonton-based team opted to part ways at the end of the season.
Now a free agent, Sweeting was able to entertain the notion of playing third and reached out to Manitoba skip Kerri Einarson, whose team had also decided to split off.
“You anticipate that there’s going to be some sort of change but then as things unfolded in the last couple weeks it just led to me being on my own,” Sweeting said Friday. “I was pursuing everything. I kind of took a step back and realized that third might be a good position for me.”
Sweeting started the current quadrennial with lead Rachel Brown and second Dana Ferguson returning and New Brunswick’s Andrea Crawford joining at third. Things didn’t work out as planned and Crawford departed just two months into the 2014-15 season on the eve of the first Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tournament of the Olympic cycle, the Masters. Cathy Overton-Clapham filled in as the super spare and it was a Masters miracle as Sweeting persevered to capture her first career Grand Slam championship.
Lori-Olson Johns became their new full-time third following the Masters and the team collected additional hardware earning the 2014 Canada Cup, 2015 Scotties Tournament of Hearts silver medals plus back-to-back Tour Challenge Tier 1 titles in 2016 and 2017. Team Sweeting also claimed the Bonus Cup for 2016-17 as the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling season champions.
“The last four years have been great for me as a skip,” Sweeting said. “We did a lot of really cool things together and I think it was really good. … There’s no doubt our team had quite a bit [of adversity] more early on in the quadrennial.”
While the highs were high, the lows were heartbreaking low. Team Sweeting fell in provincial playdowns during the past three seasons and had their Olympic dreams dashed at December’s Roar of the Rings Canadian curling trials. Sweeting managed to turn things around after starting 0-3 but just missed the playoffs with a 4-4 round-robin record.
Sweeting’s inquiry to play third sort of caught Einarson off guard. The recent Scotties silver medallist had already made plans with Shannon Birchard and Briane Meilleur to play third and second, respectively, and only needed a lead to complete her roster. The three were open to shuffling the lineup though to bring Sweeting in at third.
“I sat down with them, we talked and they thought it was an amazing opportunity for them to get themselves out there and to get into the Slams as well,” Einarson said. “I think we’d be on the bubble for that or close or in. That was one of their goals, for Shannon and Briane, to be in the Slams so they thought it would be great. They would love to play different positions, embrace them and be the best lead and second that we need.”
“I wasn’t quite sure how that would fit together or if it would be something they’d be interested it,” Sweeting added. “They chatted and it all worked out. I’m excited for the opportunity to learn a new position and the opportunity to play with the girls.”
Einarson believes the two will complement each other quite well in the back end and it isn’t going to be the case of too many skips trying to do things their own way.
“I feel her and I are pretty laid-back and we’re pretty relaxed out there,” Einarson said. “I think we would for sure be a great back-end team.”
It’s been a while since Sweeting has played third, but she’s looking forward to the change of scenery and assisting Einarson.
“I know that was in juniors, a different level and a different time of my life. I’m a totally different person now than I was back then,” Sweeting said. “It’ll be good. I have a lot to offer and Kerri is already a good skip. I feel like I can contribute to the team in a positive way. It’ll be a lot of work for me as far as I learned from mixed doubles, judging a rock and that kind of thing. It’ll be a new role for sure. I’m excited to step back and play a more supportive role for a great team.
“I’ll definitely have to work hard but I would have had to work hard anyway to develop more as a skip. No matter where you’re playing or what you’ve done you always want to work harder to get better. It’ll be new, there will be learning curves, we have lots to figure out still but I think it’s exciting and we’re all really motivated.”
Sweeting isn’t the only one on the team adjusting to a new position as Birchard and Meilleur are taking steps down from skipping too in order to play front-end roles. Birchard also filled in for Olympic-bound Kaitlyn Lawes at third for Jennifer Jones’s Team Manitoba at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and won the title.
“Shannon is a great shooter and she stepped in so well at the Scotties. She’s a Scotties champ now! She’s really good,” Sweeting said. “Briane had a great run at the [Olympic] pre-trials and she’s a good shooter too. I really felt for her losing both those qualifiers.
“I’m excited to get to know them better, play with them and develop in different roles. I think we’ll all be learning a new role but it’s not a bad thing. We’ll all be in it together, learning together and it’s not just one player learning a new role it’s all of us. I think we’ll understand the position that each other is in and we’re committed to working really hard at it.”
Sweeping down the line is another thing Sweeting is going to have to get the hang of again although competing in mixed doubles with Brad Gushue already prepared her for that extra workload.
“Playing mixed doubles was awesome with Brad,” said Sweeting, who finished runner-up at the Canadian Olympic mixed doubles trials. “We had a really good run and it was such an awesome experience. We’re likely going to play in the mixed doubles nationals but obviously wishing him the best at the Brier.”
You can still call her “Valberta” as Sweeting isn’t leaving Edmonton for Gimli, Man., anytime soon.
“We don’t have everything figured out yet by any means but I said I’d do whatever it takes,” Sweeting said. “I’m not in a position in my life where I can move to Manitoba; I’ll be playing out of Alberta and training here. I have a lot of good resources here too.
“Once the season kicks in you see each other quite a bit at the events anyway but we will have to have training in Winnipeg so I’ll have to be prepared for that. There are lots of options, lots of ways to make it work and lots of teams do it. I’m sure maybe we’ll chat with some other teams who do it, get some ideas, figure out what works for us and go from there.”
Einarson understands it’ll be tricky having an out-of-province player but is confident Sweeting can make the sacrifices and put in the time and effort to make it all work.
“We know there are going to be some challenges but Val is definitely willing to work hard,” Einarson said. “I know she’s a very hardworking player so she knows what it’s going to take to maybe do that extra bit of travel. As long as we have our sponsorship that shouldn’t be an issue. If we can get her to come here or maybe in the off-season us three go there to Alberta. I think we’re in for that challenge and it seems all the teams are doing it so we’re not the only ones.”
Einarson and Sweeting are both still committed to finishing out the season with their current teams before they officially join forces. Sweeting has already qualified for the year-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup in Calgary and is aiming to end the quadrennial on a high note.
“It would be great to have a good performance in the last Slam,” Sweeting said. “We did accomplish a lot together. Just to think back on all of the events we played and everything we did together, it’s incredible. To come together one last time and do really well, it would mean a lot. We’ve enjoyed a bit of a break here since the last Slam and it’ll be good to get back, focus on that, have something to play for and hopefully just go out there and do really well.”