‘A Cool Runnings story’: Australian curlers prepare to make Olympic history | Winter Olympics Beijing 2022

On Wednesday night, in the first event of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Australians Tahli Gill and Dean Hewitt will make history. This is not an easy task. Representing a country with a proud Olympic record, there are few firsts left to win in green and gold uniforms: Australia have competed in the Summer Games since federation and the Winter Games since 1936. But when the duo out on the ice for their opening mixed doubles encounter, they would become Australia’s first-ever Olympic curlers.

Hailing from a country without a single dedicated curling facility, Gill and Hewitt’s road to Beijing was not an easy one. At the Games, they will face the heavyweights of the sport. “I think given that we’re not a typical curling nation, we’re probably considered an underdog,” Gill said. “It’s a strong peloton, every team is really good there. But that means any team can win. Including, potentially, Australia. “For everyone at the Olympics, you want to try and get a medal – that would be fantastic,” adds Hewitt. “We’ll just push as hard as we can every game and see what we can do there.”

Curling was first played in Scotland in the early 16th century, with large flat-bottomed rocks being slid across frozen lakes. Today it is usually held indoors on artificial ice rinks and is popular in many countries with cool climates. Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Great Britain dominate the competitive sport. “There’s a lot at stake: the precision, the power and the endurance of the sweep as well,” says Hewitt. “And the strategy behind it is huge, the mental game is really important. It’s chess on ice, but we have to play really fast – you’re timed.

So how did two Australians, Gill from sunny Queensland and Hewitt from Victoria, end up competing in an ice sport, at the highest level?

Gill thanks his mother. “She once saw curling in the Winter Olympics [on TV] and I wanted to try,” says the 22-year-old. “At the time, I was doing figure skating, so she was already in contact with the local ice rink.” When Gill’s mother learned that the rink did not offer curling, she rounded up Canadian and American expats and formed a curling club in Brisbane. “I watched her train every night and eventually represent Australia,” Gill says. “She really inspired me to give it a try – and now I’m here.” It was a similar story for Hewitt, inspired by his Canadian mother, who was also an avid curler. “I’ve been curling all my life,” he says.

Gill and Hewitt after winning the mixed doubles play-off against Korea in Olympic qualifying last year. Photography: Vincent Jannink/EPA

Growing up on the national curling scene, Gill and Hewitt got to know each other through junior competitions. But Hewitt, now 27, five years older than Gill, moved on to senior competition first. It wasn’t until they met again at the Nationals a few years ago that the possibility of competing together emerged.

“At the time, Dean was playing with his mother and I was playing with another partner,” Gill explains. “Then Dean and his mom were talking, and I got a call.” Hewitt points out that it was a mutual decision, pushing back against a tongue-in-cheek interpretation that he dumped his mother for a new teammate. “She would have been over 60 for these Olympics, so we thought it was probably time to make a change and develop a team for the future,” he says.

The decision to play together quickly paid off, with the duo finishing fourth in a field of 48 nations at the 2019 World Championships in Norway. It was the best result for an Australian team in any curling discipline. Two years later, Gill and Hewitt needed a similar performance to qualify for Beijing, with the top seven teams automatically progressing to the Olympics. But despite a victory over heavyweights Canada, the pair ultimately placed 13th.

That left Gill and Hewitt needing to finish in the top two at a last-minute Olympic qualifying event in the Netherlands in December, among a field of 14 teams. A narrow one-point triumph over South Korea secured their historic qualification spot. “It was very surreal,” Hewitt says.

The extent of their success for Australian curling is not lost on Gill and Hewitt. “We knew if we got a team to go to the Olympics it would grow the sport because there’s always a lot of interest after an Olympic year,” says Gill. Hewitt adds: “Hopefully this will do wonders for Australian curling.”

“Once you’re on the ice, you’ll feel right at home,” Hewitt says. Photography: Vincent Jannink/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

In an ideal world, increased interest would see the construction of a dedicated curling rink in Australia. “Hopefully it’s on the cards in the future,” says Gill. Currently, clubs across the country practice on multi-purpose hockey ice, used for ice hockey, figure skating and speed skating. “These are the ice conditions that we have to deal with, which are very different from what we have when we are overseas on dedicated curling ice,” she said. “But we make do with what we have and use the resources we have in Australia.”

The lack of a stand-alone curling rink is not the only impediment to the growth of curling in Australia. The curling stones, which weigh 20kg and come from just two granite quarries in the world, one in Scotland and one in Wales, aren’t cheap at around $500 a stone.

While some of Gill and Hewitt’s foreign rivals in Beijing play professional curling, limited support for the sport in Australia means they both have other careers. Gill is studying to be an elementary school teacher, while Hewitt is an exercise physiologist and works “some odd jobs on the side”. Following their performance at the 2019 World Championships, the duo received financial support from state institutes and the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia (which is underwritten by the Australian Institute of Sport). But compared to the sports of the Summer Games, winter sports – and curling in particular – receive paltry funding.

Having overcome the lack of facilities and support to pave an unlikely path to the Winter Olympics, Gill and Hewitt come up with a fairy tale story. Already, other smaller curling nations are rallying behind the Australians. If the pair do well at the Ice Cube in the next few days (round-robin competition begins Wednesday, with matches played until the gold medal game the following Tuesday), a cult awaits them.

The Ice Box in Beijing, where the curling competition will take place.
The Ice Box in Beijing, where the curling competition will take place. Photography: VCG/Getty Images

Comparisons have been made to the Jamaican bobsled team’s debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics, which inspired the Disney movie Cool Runnings. “I think it’s been mentioned that it’s kind of a Cool Runnings story, just because it’s so hot [in Australia], and curling is not very common,” says Gill. “It’s really cool.”

Gill’s preparations were momentarily derailed when she tested positive upon arrival in Beijing, only to be given the green light to compete after returning two negative results, and as she and Hewitt know they will enter the history when they hit the ice on Wednesday. , the pair hope to take it all at their own pace.

“I think once you get out there, feel the ice under the cursor and throw the first rock, I think once you’re on the ice, you’ll feel right at home,” Hewitt says. “It’s just when you look up, that’s the difference – when you see those Olympic rings.” For Australia, a proud sporting nation, this will be the first time Australian curlers will see these Olympic rings. If Gill and Hewitt succeed, they won’t be the last.

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