After winning curling gold at the last two Olympics, Anette Norberg will again be calling the shots for Sweden at the Sochi Games.
There’s a catch: She’ll be in a TV commentary booth rather than out on the ice.
With Norberg ending her illustrious curling career last year at 46, the Swedes have a new skip at the Olympics for the first time since 2006 – Margaretha Sigfridsson.
The transition so far has been smooth. Sigfridsson is the current European champion and her rink has won silver at the last two world championships.
“She has as much talent as Anette, definitely,” Sweden coach Peja Lindholm told The Associated Press. “I mean, she’s been a top-level international for the last three years. She won’t be too shaky in Sochi, that’s for sure.”
Sigfridsson will have serious competition as she looks to take over from Norberg as curling’s latest “Ice Queen.”
Eve Muirhead of Britain has already captured European and world titles to add to her four victories at the world junior championships – can she top the lot by winning Olympic gold by the age of 23?
The United States, Canada, Switzerland, Russia (as host), Denmark, South Korea, China and Japan are the other teams to have qualified.
Here are five things to know about the women’s tournament:
They met in the world championship final in March, the European championship final in November and are favored to reach the Olympic final on Feb. 20.
It’s 1-1 between Eve Muirhead and Margaretha Sigfridsson in major finals over the past 10 months – Sweden won the Europeans and Scotland won the worlds – so the Olympics could be the decider.
They will be able to size each other up immediately in Sochi after Sweden was drawn to play Britain in the first round-robin session on Feb. 10. Both skips will be looking to make a statement ahead of a possible rematch 10 days later.
THE BAGPIPE-PLAYING CURLER
Could Muirhead be any more Scottish?
She plays the bagpipes (a junior champion). She loves a round of golf (once played off scratch and had golf scholarship offers from American universities). And she also has curling in her blood (her father, Gordon, was a world champion in 1999).
It’s curling where she has made her name, so much so that she is probably the sport’s biggest female superstar.
“I knew from a young age that I had a good opportunity and potential in this sport and I think I’ve proven that,” Muirhead said of picking curling over golf. “I think I made the right decision.”
Muirhead has already had one attempt at Olympic gold, in Vancouver in 2010 when Britain arrived as one of the favorites and left after failing to advance out of the round-robin stage. Call that a trial run – Muirhead was only 19.
Four years later, Muirhead and teammates Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams and Claire Hamilton are a slick operation, curling fulltime thanks to 5 million pounds ($8.2 million) of funding by sportscotland and UK Sport, and regular winners at the top global competitions while competing as Scotland.
GETTING HER CHANCE
Jennifer Jones has been Canada’s top-ranked skip since 2005 but the opportunity to represent her curling-mad country at the Olympics has always eluded her.
After flopping in the Olympic trials in 2005 and 2009, Jones finally got it right last year with a victory over Sherry Middaugh in the final. It felt like a burden had been lifted off her shoulders – but the hard work has only just started.
“It’s probably one of the best Olympic fields to ever to be assembled,” Jones said, “you have so many world champions.”
Jones is one of them, back in 2008.
Canada’s women have made the podium at all four Olympics since curling returned to the program in 1998.
FROM CALGARY TO SOCHI
Twenty-five years after her first appearance at the Olympics, United States skip Erika Brown is preparing to make her last.
She took time off from school in 1988 to compete at the Calgary Games as a 15-year-old, when curling was just a demonstration sport, and was then part of the U.S. team that failed to get past the round-robin stage in Nagano in 1998.
At 40, she says this is her final shot at winning the Olympics.
“That would be a pretty sweet one to sew it up with,” Brown, who has won national and world titles, told the AP.
Competing in Sochi would round off a curling career that you could say began when she was 7 days old, when her mother took her to watch her father play at the local rink. It’s been some journey.
For the ambitious, ever-growing World Curling Federation, it was a major result to see China and Japan come through the Olympic qualifying event and take their places in the women’s tournament.
They are two rapidly emerging markets of a sport whose strongholds have long been Canada, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries.
“The Asian market is huge for us,” WCF President Kate Caithness said. “We are just about hitting every continent, with Africa the one we haven’t quite got into. We are known as the fastest-growing winter sport.”
A curling gold for an Asian country will be especially well-received considering the 2018 Winter Olympics is being staged in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The South Koreans are also in the 10-team women’s lineup in Sochi.
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