U.S. curling, overhauled and powered by Minnesotans, ready for Olympics

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Every four years, Americans get fired up for curling. Can’t get enough of it.

We’ll spend the next three weeks fixated on it at the Beijing Games, especially those of us in the Midwest and particularly in Minnesota, where the defending gold medal-winning team led by skip John Shuster largely resides.

We’ll stay up late and get up early to watch. We’ll toss around curling jargon like we speak the language fluently.

Then the Olympics will end, and everyone will return to the rest of their non-bonspiel lives.

Except, that’s not entirely true — not anymore.

Curling is fighting now to be more interesting and relevant outside the Olympic cycle. USA Curling headquarters last year moved from Stevens Point, Wis., to the Viking Lakes development in Eagan to be in a bigger market in a state with plenty of curling clubs while also staying near Wisconsin, which remains a hotbed. There are top-notch training facilities in Eagan, next to Vikings HQ, and competition ice in Chaska for practice.

That 2018 gold medal and this new level of sophistication come six years after the USOC threatened to pull funding and support from USA Curling after multiple failures on the sport’s biggest stage.

“The opportunity to partner with the Vikings and be on their campus and immerse ourselves in a top 15 market in the United States. that’s the future,” USA Curling CEO Jeff Plush said. “It’s not a small operation, and we want to become the best curling nation in the world.”

Chisholm native Shuster and his four-man team, the 2018 champs, are back for more, with Chris Plys replacing Tyler George as the only change. The women’s team is skippered by Eagan’s Tabitha Peterson. And Plys, from Duluth, joins Vicky Persinger for mixed doubles. There will be a curling match played each day of the Olympics, offering chances for USA Curling to prove it is ascending on the international level.

Professionalization of curling

Plush remembers the old headquarters in Wisconsin, which was a warehouse with a handful of offices in it. Home is now a modern facility, occupied by a larger staff. There is greater investment in training and development. And, yes, they have someone in charge of data and analytics.

For the recreational curler, it’s an activity that can include your favorite beverage. But USA Curling has had to go next-level to catch up with the rest of the world. They have to be, as George put it simply, “professional curlers.”

“The Swedish team, for example, they’re either training or curling all the time,” said George, who won gold with Shuster in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018 and will be an analyst for NBC for the Beijing Games. “You have to treat it like any other sport with regards to the organization, bringing in sports psychologists and top trainers. You have to act like a professional athlete and go through all those same things while you’re still going back to your job when you’re done.”

This had to happen, George said. USA Curling had no choice but to evolve. After finishing last in the 2010 games in Vancouver and next to last in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, the United States Olympic Committee threatened to slash funding or de-certify USA Curling if it didn’t shape up and start winning.

“That’s going to raise some eyebrows,” George said of the poor finishes. “And that changes a lot of things.”

So USA Curling responded, putting a CEO in charge instead of a board of directors governing the organization. It stressed its high-performance program, in which the top curlers would train and form teams instead of self-formed teams. But Shuster, who was part of the two poor finishes and not part of the high-performance program, formed a team that was good enough to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games.

That’s where the breakthrough happened, as Shuster’s team knocked off Sweden in the gold-medal game.

“The numbers were crazy,” said Jenna Martin, senior director of marketing and communications for USA Curling. “About 7.5 million people watched that game. You think about the time difference and the people who were up in some parts of the country in the middle of the night watching curling, it was really awesome.”

That showed the appetite for the sport. And gold medals are good for business, as Team Shuster took a nationwide victory lap after the win. USA Curling has moved forward since then, signing a multiyear sponsorship deal with Columbia that includes designing their Olympic uniforms.

Plush, a former commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League, is pushing for more sponsorships. He also wants to continue to plant seeds and grow the organization, which has about 25,000 members and around 200 registered clubs. A proliferation of curling facilities would help.

More medals this month from Team USA also would fuel those efforts, and the success would fuel more growth and help USA Curling stay out of the USOC’s crosshairs.

“The interest level in the sport is high,” Plush said. “It’s only going to continue to grow. Clearly, when the Olympic spotlight is on, which it will be over the next 30 days, it just takes it up to a whole different level.

“But we are confident the sport is going to resonate well beyond the Olympics. That’s our mission and our ambition, to be relevant every year.”

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