By Kristina Rutherford in Ottawa
By Kristina Rutherford in Ottawa
Earning the right to represent Canada in curling may be the toughest possible path to an Olympic Games. Here’s how Team Homan punched its ticket to Pyeongchang.

It was Halloween night, but 12-year-old Rachel Homan and Emma Miskew were not dressed as Teletubbies or superheroes or zombies or whatever they’d dreamt up, and they were not going door-to-door saying “trick-or-treat” like all their friends. Instead, the girls and their Ottawa-based rink had a game against the Swiss junior national curling team, four 18- and 19-year-olds who you can bet had been throwing rocks longer than Homan and Miskew had been living. But the primary parental concern, if you ask Rachel’s father, Craig Homan, was not that Rachel and Emma and their teammates were missing out on free candy or that they might get blown out by teenagers representing a nation of more than eight million: “It was past their bed time,” Craig says, on account of a 9 p.m. start.

Team Homan didn’t beat the Swiss that Halloween, though it came down to the last rock. They went 0-3 in their second-ever bonspiel against junior-aged competition. But just earning their way into that tournament — they did so after dusting a bunch of 19-year-olds in a qualifier — was the first sign of the characteristic that has defined this team from the start: These young guns play well beyond their years. And so, back in December, when Homan and Miskew met for a long, teary hug at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre seconds after sewing up an Olympic berth despite being the youngest team in the field at Canadian trials, you could have easily made the case that we should’ve seen this coming.

Their history wasn’t the only reason Team Homan earning a trip to Pyeongchang seemed a given: Homan, Miskew, second Joanne Courtney and lead Lisa Weagle are, after all, reigning world champions. Only one Canadian skip in history has won three national titles by age 27, and it’s Homan. She’ll also be the youngest Canadian female skip ever at an Olympics, at 28. Representing Canada at the 2018 Games is the next natural step in a career full of youngest-ever firsts. It should’ve been obvious, right?

But it’s not as simple as that. Ask Glenn Howard how hard it is to earn a chance to represent this country at the Olympics when there are potential gold medallists in just about every province — and multiple candidates in some. Howard is a four-time world champion, one of the most decorated curlers ever, and he never qualified for the Winter Games. Kevin Koe displays so little emotion that his third, Marc Kennedy, calls the skip “a cold-blooded assassin.” Koe jumped about two feet in the air, very un-assassin-like, after his Calgary rink won the men’s trials. The team’s second, Brent Laing, captured the difficulty of winning that berth minutes later: “I can say for sure that nothing can be harder,” he said, shaking his head. Not even the Olympics themselves? Laing’s head kept on shaking: “It just can’t be.”

Given you have to take down world and Olympic champions to simply qualify for the Winter Games, given it’s a tougher field than nationals since strong provinces can be represented by more than one team, you can’t just chalk up Team Homan’s win at the Roar of the Rings to skill and big-game experience and the natural next step for a young and talented rink. A confluence of circumstances — luck, a few phone calls, a big loss, personnel changes — led Homan, Miskew, Courtney and Weagle to Pyeongchang. Homan, the skip with the straight brown hair and impossible-to-shake focus, will admit she had a hard time recovering from a semi-final loss at the last Olympic trials back in 2013. But that defeat was key because it signaled a shift for her team. “We weren’t ready four years ago, and we didn’t know it,” Homan said, a day after she became an Olympian. “We’re ready now.”

This is how the rink looking to win Canada’s second-straight Olympic gold in women’s curling punched its ticket to Pyeongchang.

Rocking the History Books
Homan is the only skip to win three Canadian titles by the age of 27, and the youngest female skip ever to represent Canada at an Olympic Games.

It was landline-to-landline, the first phone call to put this team together. At the request of his then 11-year-old daughter, Art Miskew rang Craig Homan to see if Rachel was interested in playing with Emma. The girls had recently met in a showcase little rocks game at the 2001 Brier in their hometown of Ottawa, but after that season, Miskew’s team had dropped her in favour of an older girl. Emma was gutted, but she knew her next move: To check in with the skip she’d known since they were five-year-olds throwing their first rocks at the Rideau Curling Club. “Rachel’s so good,” Emma told her dad. “It would be awesome to play with her.” Art called Craig and that was the start of a now 17-year relationship as teammates. “It happened almost by accident,” Art explains. “If that other team had wanted Emma, she would have stayed there.”

That call brought together two talented and highly motivated young curlers. Rachel had watched her older brother, Mark, play on a junior team with John Morris, and while Mark quit to pursue hockey, she watched Morris win a national junior title and later, Olympic gold in Vancouver. Rachel wanted to do the same. Emma, who came from a curling family, was fuelled by a desire to beat the team that let her go.

Even at 11, Homan says, “we had high expectations.” Art remembers a regular conversation before bonspiels: “What happens if we win?” the skip would ask. “Well, you’d go to provincials,” Art would tell her. “What happens if we win that?” Homan would counter. “Well, you go into a Canada Winter Games playoff.” Homan again: “What happens if we win that?” Then it would be on to the Canada Winter Games, which Homan and Miskew won when they were 16.

“We weren’t ready four years ago, and we didn’t know it. We’re ready now.”

A year later, they beat Jennifer Jones — who’d already won the first of her five Scotties titles and was a year removed from a world championship — at the Southwestern Ontario Women’s Charity Cashspiel. “That was eye-opening,” Craig recalls. “You just hope the girls show well, and they go out there and get three- and four-enders against Jennifer Jones, which nobody gets.” Team Homan went on to win the whole bonspiel.

The wins kept coming while they were junior-aged and playing at the senior level: They beat the Chinese national team the following year, were named the World Curling Tour’s rookie team of the year in 2009, and in their final year as juniors in 2010, stormed to a 13-0 record and a Canadian national junior title, before taking silver at junior worlds.

Lisa Weagle is four years older than Miskew and Homan, and she was watching their team’s success while curling with a senior-aged rink in Ottawa. Knowing that Team Homan was officially graduating to the senior ranks, and that one of their players was still junior-aged, Weagle told Homan to keep her in mind as the replacement lead. Weagle says “I wasn’t really sure if they were going to consider me, because they could have their pick of anyone.”

She was sitting in her cubicle at work in the summer of 2010 when her cell phone rang. It was Homan, asking if she wanted to join the team. Says Weagle now: “That phone call changed my life.”

The Right Calls
A phone call between their fathers brought Homan and Miskew together 17 years ago. Homan did the dialling herself when she invited Weagle and, later, Courtney to join her team.

Joanne Courtney is crying so hard that she needs to consciously slow down to catch her breath. The tears make it hard for her to talk, but she’s trying anyway. “I should stop crying in the next week or so,” the 28-year-old says with a laugh before the waterworks start up again. Homan is hugging her mom and her dad and her husband. Miskew is in tears, though she’s breathing normally, talking to media on the blue carpet at the Canadian Tire Centre. “We’re Olympians,” she says, grinning.

Weagle’s eyes have dried by now, some 20 minutes after the final rock was thrown at the 2017 Olympic trials. She works in communications for Sport Canada, but for the past year, the 32-year-old with the dark hair and big grin has been on unpaid leave to prepare for this moment. “The last trials were disappointing,” she says, “but I think losing them was probably the best thing that ever happened to us.”

After that semi-final loss at the Roar of the Rings in Winnipeg in 2013, which Jones’s rink won before going on an undefeated run to Olympic gold, Homan’s group reorganized. The change was in part because they wanted to spend the next four years working toward an Olympic berth, and in part because they had no choice: Long-time teammate Alison Kreviazuk, who’d been with Miskew and Homan most of the way since 2002, was leaving the team and moving to Sweden to be closer to her boyfriend.

Team Homan needed a second, and that’s when Courtney, more than 3,000 km away, heard her cell phone ring. “I don’t even know how she got my number,” Courtney says of her skip. “Rachel has her ways, you know?”

Courtney was then playing with her hometown rink, Team Sweeting, and in February of 2014 they’d lost to Homan in the Scotties final as the Ottawa team went undefeated to win a second straight Canadian title. A dialysis nurse who lives in Edmonton with her husband and dog, Courtney says the decision to switch teams wasn’t exactly made overnight, “but,” she continues, tilting her head and throwing up her hands, “it’s the type of opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.”

With their roster nailed down, Team Homan added Kyle Paquette, Curling Canada’s head consultant for mental training, to work on the psychological side of their game. He’s a PhD candidate who’s curled only a handful of times in his life. “The whole idea of bringing me on was to be real with them,” Paquette explains. “They didn’t want anybody to pretend that things were all good, which I think had been the case in the past. And I think there were a lot of really obvious gaps in their performance.”

It’s an absurd thing to say about a team that had just won back-to-back national championships, but Paquette saw the four women as a group of individuals rather than a collective, as players who were unsure of the best way to help the team off the ice. “The unit wasn’t gelling,” Paquette says.

Team Homan lost another key piece in the summer of 2016 when coach Marcel Rocque took a position with the Chinese men’s national team. That’s when the Ottawa rink doubled down on mental training. They opted to replace Rocque not with another curling coach, but with Adam Kingsbury, a specialist in sports psychology who hasn’t curled competitively a day in his life. Kingsbury isn’t about to give the women technical tips, but the coach weighs in on things like how to manage the tension of a major match and how to regulate all the energy that comes with big moments.

Weagle says this new focus on the mental game has paid off big time. “We’ve been working hard on being able to perform under pressure,” she explains. The team started practicing with an elevated heart rate, for example — “being comfortable when we’re uncomfortable,” Courtney says — to mimic big-game situations like the one they found themselves in at world championships in March of 2017, when they became the first women’s team in history to go undefeated en route to the title.

What Courtney has noticed most during the moments that count is the team’s improved communication. “We’ve been so lucky to have the opportunity to perform when everything’s on the line in those nervous situations. So when they come up, we don’t run away from them,” she says. “We’ll let each other know if we’re feeling off, if it’s nervous or sick or not confident or tired, and the rest of the group will support the person through it and make sure they’re doing what they need to do to get themselves in the optimal frame of mind.”

Winning the 2017 Roar of the Rings and securing a spot in Pyeongchang brought Miskew to tears.

Within this new framework, each player now has a defined role. These come in addition to each woman’s more obvious characteristics, like world-class shot-making (Miskew curled at 98 per cent efficiency in the Olympic trials final) and hard work (Homan set up a gym in her garage and works out at least 340 days a year) and dedication (Courtney has put her career on hold in Edmonton to spend as much time as possible with the team) and belief in one another (“Every time Rachel gets in the hack, I think 100 per cent she’s going to make the shot,” Weagle says).

Weagle is the calming influence, the one whose “support you can always feel, whether you make a shot or not,” Miskew says. The lead smiles a little and nods after stellar shots. You won’t see a fist-pump. “It takes a lot of practice and regulation for me to be neutral, but I know that’s what my teammates need,” she explains. “I find the highs and lows can be very draining, but a lot of my role is being that steady force on the team and helping people regulate their emotions when they need it.”

Speaking of emotion, that’s Courtney; the second wears her heart on her sleeve. The curly haired nurse was still crying a day after they secured their berth, shaking her head at points during the Olympic nomination press conference because her eyes kept welling up. “We always joke that, win or lose, there’s a 100-per cent chance that Joanne’s going to cry,” Weagle says. “We love it.” Courtney’s also the muscle on this team: Her biceps stretch her t-shirt sleeves and she sweeps with unmatched intensity, her heartrate climbing into the 190s when she’s at maximum output. “Everyone’s trying to sweep like her in the women’s game,” Weagle says. “They’re trying to have the fitness level catch up to where she is.”

“The best part is I get to go through it with three people I’d consider my best friends, people I’d consider my family.”

Miskew, the third who continually comes up with big shots, is “always positive on the ice,” says Courtney, “which is huge for us.” She’s also the off-ice leader. If anybody’s lost or confused on the road, it’s the third they turn to. A graphic designer who runs her own business, Em Designs, Miskew was the maid of honour at Homan’s wedding in 2016, and went the extra mile in designing the invites and laying out the floor plan. She also designed the uniforms Team Homan and Team Koe will wear in Pyeongchang. “She’s our team driver, and if you need something done, you ask Emma, she gets it done,” Weagle says. Her purse comes in handy, too: “She always has mints and a pen.”

As for Homan, throw out everything you thought you knew about the skip’s personality based on her fiercely intense on-ice demeanour — that look in her eye when she’s in the hack, like you could set off fireworks beside her and she wouldn’t flinch — because every team needs a joker to keep things light. “That’s definitely Rachel,” Miskew says. “Everybody’s always so surprised to hear that, because she’s a bulldog on the ice.”

When Courtney first joined this team, she was shocked to find out it was Homan cracking jokes and cooking breakfast and organizing trivia contests ahead of big games to keep everyone relaxed. “I had a feeling she’d be quite a serious person,” Courtney says, “but it’s totally the opposite.” Don’t say anything stupid around the skip, because “she’ll catch it and turn it into a joke. She’s so quick on her feet, she’ll come up with that one-liner you don’t even see coming,” Courtney says. Adds Miskew: “We always know we’re going to have a good game when she’s making us all laugh before.”

Homan has plenty of zingers up her sleeve. Asked for a couple examples, she smiles and says, “Nothing I can say on-record. Seriously.”

Targets on their backs
Coming in as defending world champions, Team Homan (left to right: Weagle, Courtney, Miskew and Homan) will have opponents gunning for them as they fight for Canada's second straight gold in women's curling.

The day they qualified for the Olympics, the members of Team Homan took in the men’s final and then celebrated with friends and family. Homan had a bunch of neighbourhood buddies over, people she’d known nearly her entire life. “It’s honestly been an unbelievable journey,” she says, shaking her head. (In about 10 minutes of conversation, the word “unbelievable” comes up four times.) “The best part is I get to go through it with three people I’d consider my best friends, people I’d consider my family.

“It’s unique in that we can enjoy this together — in individual sports it would be harder,” Homan adds. “Maybe I’m a little biased because curling is all I know, right? But you compete with your friends. That’s really special to me.”

Homan’s blue-grey eyes widen and her eyebrows raise when she considers the road to the Olympics, and specifically this past quadrennial, when a team coming off back-to-back national victories sought to change its approach. “That’s a four-year process; there’s no do-overs and we put absolutely everything we had into it,” Homan says. “[Olympic trials are] absolutely the hardest thing we’ve ever won.”

In Pyeongchang, with their hardest victory already behind them, she and Miskew and Courtney and Weagle will be going after their biggest. The focus shifted immediately, Weagle says: “It’s time to look forward to the next goal, which is winning gold at the Olympics.”

The training program for both Canadian rinks in the lead-up to the Games runs nearly daily, and in early February Team Homan will have a pre-Games training camp in Japan ahead of its Olympic debut. “We’ve been working toward this for a long time,” the youngest Canadian female skip in Olympic history says. “We honestly can’t wait.”

Photo Credits

Getty Images (2); Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images (3); Greg Baker/AFP Photo
Design by Drew Lesiuczok