Rockin’ the house

Anil Mungal

Meet Rachel Homan, the wunderkind who isn’t shy about her plan to be the best skip in curling.

The 2014 Scotties Tournament of Hearts final in early February came down to Ontario versus Alberta. With her team up by three, Ontario skip Rachel Homan called for a risky double with her last shot in one of the middle ends—a classic steely-eyed dare from the curler most often described by teammates and opponents as “fearless.” Her team went through their usual consultation process, but when Homan came down to throw the shot, she just knew what her teammates were thinking. “I had my head down. I wasn’t even looking at them, but I could just feel that they were hating every second of it,” Homan recalls. She looked up, asked if they liked the look of things, then called it all off. “It’s a team game, and it was a stupid call, and I knew it,” she says. Homan settled for hitting the open rock instead of the double, and her rink went on to defeat Val Sweeting’s 8–6 to win their second consecutive Canadian women’s curling championship, becoming the first team since 1985 to go undefeated. That pivotal moment in the final was a perfect encapsulation of both Homan’s ballsy style and the hard-won bond that allows her team to talk her down from a dangerous edge once in a while.

The past year has been huge for the Ottawa-based curlers. They arrived at their 2013 Scotties win by way of an 11–0 romp through the Ontario championship. They took bronze representing Canada at the 2013 World Women’s Curling Championship, and they won the Masters in November to kick off this Grand Slam of Curling season. They’ll wear the Maple Leaf once again at the worlds in Saint John, N.B., in mid-March, and then hope they have enough time to catch their breath before the Players’ Championship in Summerside, P.E.I., in mid-April. It’s the final Grand Slam event of the season, and there’s a $100,000 bonus to be had if Homan’s rink can sweep both women’s events. In fact, about the only thing that hasn’t gone swimmingly for Team Homan lately was a semifinal defeat at the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings, which cost them a trip to the Olympics—this time.

Homan’s team somehow manages to simultaneously be jaw-dropping wunderkinds and experienced veterans. At 28, lead Lisa Weagle is both the elder statesman and newest addition to the team. The others—Homan, 24, third Emma Miskew, 25, and second Alison Kreviazuk, 25—have been curling together since bantam (under-16). What they lack in years, they make up for in sheer talent, technical skill, freaky confidence and near-telepathic communication. “We’ve gone through highs and lows as a team,” Homan says. “I’m really fortunate that they believe in me 100 percent and they’ll always back me, and I want to do the same for them.” Team Homan’s relative youth suggests really big things to come in Canadian women’s curling. “We’ve won a lot of games recently that a few years ago we wouldn’t have won,” says Miskew. “We’ve learned how to hit the reset button during a game, which as young players isn’t always easy.”

Halifax-based skip Heather Smith, 41, remembers vividly the first time she played Homan’s rink. Team Homan were fresh out of juniors and competing in their first Scotties, in 2011 in Charlottetown. “We were scoping out our competitors, and we thought, ‘OK, they probably have some nerves,’” Smith recalls. Not so much. Team Homan easily dismissed Smith’s rink in their first draw and again in the minor semifinal, before the older curlers prevailed in the bronze-medal game. “We knew they were an amazing team, but they came into the ladies with gusto and have never really looked back,” says Smith, who served as alternate for Team Homan at Roar of the Rings in December.

But if “fearless” is the word most often used to describe their skip, other popular choices are less flattering. Homan has
at times been called scowly, or simply scary; her on-ice exhortations to her sweepers register somewhere between barks and shrieks, and her natural shyness makes some of her interviewers sound like  parents trying to get teenagers to talk about their day at school. One blogger summed it up this way: “Team Rachel Homan is the pizza burn on the mouth of women’s curling.”

Of course, all of this basically boils down to accusing an athlete of being too competitive, which is really a compliment, however backhanded. The criticism baffles those closest to Homan, especially her teammates. “We’re all intense out there, but the reporters and viewers and fans are definitely harder on her than they are on the rest of us,” says Miskew. “There are a lot of people who are surprised to see her smiling, but we see her smiling all the time. She’s playing a sport where she wants to win, but so are all of us.” Homan has grown up in the on-ice spotlight—her every word carried on a microphone, no less—and lately she’s learned to dull the edges of her comments rather than bluntly assessing her team’s shortcomings. There’s also a little more deference when she’s discussing her competitors.

But it would be hopelessly boring—and terrible for Canadian women’s curling, with this team poised to be a world-beater for years to come—if Homan turned into just another athlete spouting polite clichés, or if she opted for safe shots instead of the gutsy calls that have made her so formidable on the ice. Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen. “Whatever people want to say about me behind a computer screen in their basement, it’s not something I lose sleep over,” Homan says. “I’ve heard people say I’m too serious. But you don’t see any hockey players smiling at their opponents. We’re out there playing a sport and trying to do our best and bring home gold for Canada. It’s not something we’re going to take lightly.” You’ve been warned, curling world.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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