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McCusker is never far from the rink

Amber Holland's recent victory at the Scotties' Tournament of Hearts has given Joan McCusker pause to look back on her own storied success in the rings.
Olympic gold medal curler Joan McCusker is enjoying life outside the rings these days, coaching curling and offering high-performance training to athletes in a variety of sports. McCusker was in Humboldt last Friday for the BHP Billiton SaskStars fundraising dinner.

Amber Holland's recent victory at the Scotties' Tournament of Hearts has given Joan McCusker pause to look back on her own storied success in the rings.
It may seem hard to believe, but it's already been 14 years now since McCusker and her teammates - skip Sandra Schmirler, third Jan Betker, and lead Marcia Gudereit - last won the Tournament of Hearts. Until Holland's win last month, Team Schmirler was the last Saskatchewan rink to win the Hearts title.
"We've come close a couple of times since, " McCusker noted of teams representing the province. "Sheri Anderson (of Delisle) had that run in '02 where she was undefeated most of the way through, and then lost in the final to Colleen Jones. Then Jan (Betker, with her new rink) made it to the final and lost to Kelly Scott. That was in 2007.
"So we've had teams that have had a good showing, but you need a lot of things to fall in line when it comes to winning championships."
No one is more aware of that than McCusker, who - as a member of Team Schmirler - celebrated Tournament of Hearts victories in 1993, 1994 and 1997, following that up each time with world titles as well. Their ultimate, and final, glory as a team came when they won the women's gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
McCusker, 45, was in Humboldt last Friday for the BHP Billiton Sask Stars dinner, held at the Uniplex.
She says looking back now on her team's accomplishments, she truly realizes how special those times were. Indeed, Team Schmirler was one of the greatest curling teams in Canadian history, female or male, for any era. And they might well have won more titles had their run not ended with Schmirler's death from cancer. Schmirler passed away in 2001 at age 36.
The foursome that came to dominate Canadian women's curling during the 1990s began as an outgrowth of the Kathy Fahlman rink. All were similar in age, and all had found themselves in Regina as a result of pursuing careers outside the sport. McCusker arrived there in the late 1980s as a teacher, and she soon became active in the local curling scene.
"Jan and Sandra had played together for several years with Kathy Fahlman, and I had come from out of town and had subbed on that team, so had gotten to know them through that," McCusker explained. "They were a successful team, but Jan and Sandra really felt they needed to move up in positions in order to get to that next stage. When they decided to do that, they asked me to come with them. I had played a lot of mixed curling with Sandra as well, and we always got along well."
Schmirler and Betker asked McCusker if she had anyone in mind for the lead position, which led to Gudereit signing on. The foursome had chemistry right away.
"Once we formed that team, with Marcie playing lead and me playing second, it just felt 'right', McCusker said. "When everybody is in the right position, and believes the other players are playing the right position as well, it just works. There's a lot of trust. That's how it started for us. We had four different personalities, all the same level of drive and competitiveness, and that got the team rolling to begin with."
McCusker said one of the keys to the team's success was effective communication.
"Maybe it was because Sandra didn't always skip," she reflected. "She had played third for the majority of her career before that, and I think because of that, there was a lot of checking in with everybody; there was a lot of communication - maybe more so than with a team or player that has always had a skip who feels he or she knows what is best. There are so many factors when you're calling a game, and sometimes the wrong shot made is better than the right shot missed. I think Sandra understood that. I think sometimes if we didn't want to throw a shot, or didn't believe we could make it, then what's the point? Even though she was the skip, and ultimately had to make those tough decisions, Sandra always listened to each of us."
McCusker notes that despite the team's initial successes, it certainly didn't come easy.
For one thing, they began their careers playing with no free-guard zone rule, then had to win in international competition with a four-rock rule. When Canada adopted a three-rock rule, they simply rolled with it and continued to win.
"We had to play with all of those rules," she said. "I mean, in '93, we won being the 'Mean Green Hitting Machine,' and then when we went to the Worlds, we had to play with to that four-rock rule. It was scary! Then when we came back the next year, Canada had changed to the three-rock rule. To tell you the truth, we felt we had a bit of an advantage, because we had that international experience."
Looking back on their years together, McCusker finds it impossible to zero in on a single moment, or a single championship, that might signify all that she and her teammates achieved.
"You know what, it's really hard to say that there was any one moment that was the best or the most important," she said. "Really, what was the best was the first time that you won at a certain level. So the first time we won Provincials in 1991, when I was 25, I thought 'Man, nothing will ever get any better than this'. And then the first time that we won Canadians in '93, I thought 'Wow, nothing can get any better than this'. And then the first time we won at worlds, and then the Olympic trials, and then the Olympics
"We had to work very, very hard to get to the top and stay at the top. And what made it all worthwhile was how much I enjoyed spending time with my teammates. I think when I go out and speak to people, I talk about that a lot. That's the memory, that's the lesson. That we need to believe in the people around us, and develop those relationships. Because that was the part that was the greatest, those relationships. Not the medals or championships that we won."
McCusker refuses to say that she is "retired" from competitive curling, although she does concede that she has "stepped away" from the game. Her last competitive action was the 2005 Olympic trials, in which she, Betker, Gudereit and former Schmirler fifth Atina Ford carried on the Schmirler tradition in a bid to make the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. The team wound up fourth.
"We had that run, and by then I was working for the CBC lots, too (as a colour commentator), and I have three kids, and finally I said, 'Listen, I can't do this anymore'," McCusker noted. "Now I've been doing the public speaking, plus high-performance coaching work, so certainly at this point I really don't entertain the idea of curling competitively again."
Nevertheless, McCusker has maintained close ties with the sport, having served (since 2001) as a colour commentator with the CBC, and in coaching her 18-year-old son Braden's high school and club curling teams.
"I feel that my job now is first and foremost as a mom and as a coach," she said. "I'm coaching quite a bit, and I'm really enjoying that a lot."
She's also maintained strong ties with the surviving members of Team Schmirler. For one thing, they're still all down at the local curling rink each weekend.
"Our kids are all the same age," she said. "And we did that on purpose. I had the oldest all by himself in the first years that we were winning, but then the next crop of kids are all 13-14, and the last bunch are all 11, born within six months of each other. So we see each other all the time at the rink, because our kids play with each other on Sunday afternoons.
"Sandra's mom comes down, and Shannon (England, Sandra's husband), and the girls and all of us, and we get to yell and scream from behind the glass, and laugh our guts out while watching the kids curling.
"It's great fun. Great memories."