GANGNEUNG, South Korea – A running joke as Rachel Homan and Kevin Koe have struggled through the Pyeongchang Olympics has been whether or not to call a national curling summit, akin to the one hockey officials held after the NHL-laden men’s team flamed out at the 1998 Games in Nagano.
Relayed to Glenn Howard, the four-time world champion from Midland, Ont. – coaching the Eve Muirhead Great Britain rink that sent Homan packing Wednesday – shook his head.
“That’s a crock. No, no, no, no,” he said. “The track record we’ve had in Canada is second to none. It’s been amazing. To panic and say something like that I think is ridiculous.
“Settle down folks. That’s the way I put it.”
Easy to say, tough to do, especially after Canada’s run of winning a medal at every single Olympic bonspiel, including the inaugural mixed event in Pyeongchang, came to an end with Homan’s 6-5 loss to Muirhead.
She’s 3-5, with one game remaining against the Olympic Athletes from Russia later Wednesday, while Koe started 3-0 in the men’s draw, lost his next three games, then recovered with three straight victories, including an 8-3 rout of Denmark in seven ends to finish 6-3 and earn a spot in the semifinals.
Crisis averted there.
What made Homan’s performance so stunning is that in the past year, her Ottawa rink went a cumulative 33-3 in winning the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, the world championship and the Olympic curling trials.
Homan, third Emma Miskew, second Joanne Courtney and lead Lisa Weagle couldn’t possibly have played better coming in.
Yet they lost their first three games – two by one, one by two and faced a burned-rock controversy versus Denmark – rallied to win three straight, and then fell 7-5 to China on Tuesday to leave them in a must-win spot against the Brits.
The Canadians looked to be in good shape tied 4-4 through eight ends and holding the hammer, but a miscue kept them from blanking the ninth end, forcing Homan to draw for one, and then a Miskew shot nicking off a guard in the 10th opened the door for the Brits to score two for the win.
“We were in control the whole way. Didn’t quite put our rocks in the right spots in nine and didn’t put our rocks in the right spot in 10. Really, nine and 10 cost us,” Homan said quietly. “I’m still a bit disappointed, we wanted to try and qualify for the playoffs for Canada.
“We gave it all we had. We never gave up. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Homan and her teammates looked shell-shocked as they spoke.
Miskew and Courtney had damp eyes.
They all struggled to process what just went down.
“It felt like a bit of a grind,” Weagle said of the round robin. “We had really close games, even the ones we lost it was just a shot here and there and some rock placement that could have gone a little bit better. We never stopped fighting, never gave up and I’m really proud of us for that.”
Collectively through their first eight games, Canada was curling at an 81 per cent clip, with Homan at 77 per cent.
They’re better than that, even as they tried to put a brave face on things.
“For the most part we were really consistent, we were just getting everyone’s best game,” said Miskew. “That’s what happens when you’re the world champs. A lot of teams that were struggling in earlier games came out and played great against us. Just the wrong side of the edge a couple of times, but we felt like we were throwing pretty well.”
For certain the rest of the world is improving, despite the Homan rink’s perfect run at the world championship last year and the dominance of John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes en route to gold in the mixed event in Pyeongchang.
Homan’s world title last year was the first on the women’s side since Jennifer Jones won in 2008, and as recently as 2016 Canada missed the world podium entirely.
“Canadians have to understand that these teams outside of Canada are really good and it’s becoming more and more apparent,” said Howard. “The improvement from Vancouver to Sochi, Sochi to here is unbelievable. Folks, let’s wake up. Don’t be hard on Rachel. They did their best, they did what they can do, maybe it’s not as well as they’ve played, but these teams are playing well against them.”
The increased professionalization is a factor, too, as coaches like Howard are spreading their knowledge around the world – “I wish it didn’t come down to us putting Canada out, I struggled with that, but in the grand scheme of things, that was my job,” he said – and there is also increased scouting of rival rinks, leading to better game-planning.
Against Homan, for instance, Howard urged Muirhead to take a more aggressive approach because he figured that in a do-or-die affair the Canadians would be looking to keep things close.
“Rachel got more aggressive than I expected but I wanted to put some pressure on them, make them make shots,” he said. “It wasn’t really working for us because Rachel was playing great. It came down to we played probably the best four ends we’ve played this week on those last four ends of that game. We got a couple of half-shots out of Rachel’s team and lo-and-behold we pulled it out.”
Still, an Olympics without a women’s curling medal for Canada is a jarring first.
Weagle said the team “really tried to just stay in our bubble” at the Games and that the rink “felt a lot of support from Canada.”
“We really appreciated that,” she added.
But undeniably there was expectation from back home, too, and how that may have impacted them is a tricky question.
“I don’t really have much to say about that,” said Homan.
Howard, though, has lived it, not at the Olympics, but at the world championships.
“There’s a lot of weight, that Maple Leaf is heavy. I get it,” he said. “You have to deal with it, you have to put it behind you and it’s still curling, just go out and make curling shots. Nothing changes because you have that Maple Leaf on. But sometimes it can be heavy.
“In this case, I don’t know. Rachel and the girls, they weren’t themselves, there’s no question about that. For whatever reason. It just happens. That’s sports.”
And now, they’ll be left to deal with the fallout.
Adam Kingsbury, the Homan rink’s coach, stressed that even though gold was the goal, the Olympic experience is bigger than just winning a medal and that curling at the Games is a lifetime accomplishment.
Perhaps, but the Canadians rarely smiled during competition and often looked like they were wearing the burden of expectation.
“Even us on the coach’s bench, it’s easy for us, we’re on the periphery, to look inwards and examine every little micro expression and every interaction, but unless we’ve been out there or been in that situation, I truthfully think it’s difficult for us to pass judgment,” said Kingsbury.
“Is it fun playing on an Olympic stage? I know it’s nerve-wracking, that’s for sure. Once we get back home, there will be a lot of perspective and they are going to realize this has been a great experience, no matter the outcome.”