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Fit to Curl: A tale of two weekends

Over the past two weeks, my team and I have played our two biggest events of the season so far: the Cactus Pheasant Classic in Brooks, Alberta and the Grey Power World Cup of Curling in Windsor, Ontario.

Both are events we look forward to when we examine our calendars at the start of the season. Both have incredibly tough fields. But the formats are different, the settings are unique and the approach of a team needs to be adjusted.

John Morris at the Canada Cup of Curling (Photo: CCA/Michael Burns Photography)

First, Brooks and the Cactus Pheasant Classic. It’s held in a curling club setting but everything about this event is first-class and special, which explains why it’s become such a popular stop for the top teams. The effort of the organizers is extraordinary. There’s a Cactus Patch modeled on the Keith’s Patch at the Tim Hortons Brier, lots of spectators behind the glass and some great entertainment. What’s more, this event has raised over $100,000 to help support curling throughout the region so, as a player, you feel good about being a part of that result.

The Cactus Pheasant Classic, like most Tour events outside of the Capital One Grand Slams, uses the Triple Knockout format. The great thing about Triple Knockouts is that every time you step on the ice, the game matters. And when you qualify through the “A” bracket like we did in Brooks, a Triple Knockout is really sweet. You wind up with a nice break from curling while everyone else in the event is battling it out for the remaining playoff spots.

Of course, we’ve all seen teams qualify through the “A” and find themselves ousted in a hurry in the Quarter-Final. What we’ve learned is that you have to use the down time productively. For us, that means staying active with some light workouts and short practices instead of just lounging in a hotel room. We also make sure we blow off some steam and enjoy ourselves a bit — it’s nice to do a few things with your teammates besides curl.

Team Kevin Koe also qualified through the “A” bracket. Despite our fierce battles with this rink on the ice, we’re great friends and we spent a fair amount of time with them during our time off in Brooks. We headed over to the Patricia Hotel in Patricia, AB, where you choose Buffalo or beef steaks and then cook them over an open pit in the restaurant. Blake Macdonald and I handled the grilling duties because we knew our teammates weren’t up to the task. We didn’t think much about curling while we had perfect steaks, listened to some live music and enjoyed a truly unique experience — this is one spot you definitely don’t want to miss if you want to sample some true small town Western hospitality.

Since Brooks is also renowned for the best pheasant hunting in Canada, I headed out one morning with Jules Owchar and Carter Rycroft. If you don’t think hunting is an active endeavour, you should have seen us carrying all kinds of gear and walking about ten miles. It was a great day in the outdoors and a workout. But, like curling, if you don’t practise, your success rate isn’t what you’d like it to be. We bagged a few birds but we certainly won’t be challenging top pheasant hunters anytime soon.

By the time the playoffs rolled around in Brooks, we were rested and ready. We beat Sean Geall in the Quarters, topped Team Howard in the semis (we owed them since they’ve beaten us in the final of this event the last two seasons) and came out on top against Wayne Middaugh in the final. It was a great win in an event with all kinds of tough teams and I’m convinced that finding the right balance of activity after we qualified through the “A” was part of the reason we had success in the playoffs.

Fast-forward to last weekend’s Capital One Grand Slam in Windsor. Instead of a Triple Knockout, this Slam is pool play. We knew we had three tough games to start and when we came through with three wins, I think we relaxed just a bit. We all hate to lose so we still played hard but it’s a razor-thin difference between winning and losing at the highest levels of curling. We wound up 4-1 in the round-robin — it was good enough for the playoffs but we could sense that we needed to step it up. But in the Quarter-Finals, we played Team McEwen, the eventual champions and a rink that has become as tough as anyone on Tour. After giving up a steal of four, it was curtains for us. The McEwen team is awfully good and while losing is something I can’t stand doing, it’s been good to see this young rink put in a lot of effort and steadily improve —they are definitely now one of the very best teams in the world.

Our loss also shows that in curling, especially against the best teams, you need to be as mentally sharp as possible if you’re going to give yourself a chance to win. And it proves that everyone can keep learning about this crazy game, even a team with Olympic gold and a world championship. This weekend made us realize that we might still have some work to do when it comes preparing well for pool play, just like we’ve found a formula that works for us when we qualify through the “A” in a Triple Knockout.

Staying mentally sharp throughout an event is something that takes practice, discipline and experience. Think about how your team handles different scenarios in competitions and work at improving how you prepare.