The U.S. men's curling team made a dramatic comeback in the Pyeongchang Olympics last weekend, defeating the Canadians twice and then winning the Olympic gold medal in a decisive upset of Sweden.
Wally Henry of Beaver Dam, a lifelong curler and former Olympic coach, streamed the games live and professed his admiration of the unexpected champions.
“No U.S. curling team, men or women, had ever beaten Canada at the Olympics,” said Henry. “This year's team (John Shuster, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner, Tyler George and alternate Joe Polo) did it twice in one week. It was very exciting to watch.”
And who better to watch the games with than fellow curlers.
“I was in a national senior’s bonspiel (curling tournament) this past weekend in Wausau. There were 64 teams from all across the country cheering the team on in the early morning,” said Henry.
“Being in the sport as long as we have, my whole team knows the boys that were curling in the Olympics quite well. Matt Hamilton is from McFarland and a member of the Madison Curling Club.”
Henry, who is a member of the same club, said the Madison Curling Club has had members represented in Olympic curling ever since the sport was first included in competition as a demonstration sport in 1988. Curling didn't become an official medal sport until the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
According to Henry, curling clubs tend to be tight-knit, almost like a family.
Family is the reason Henry started curling more than 60 years ago.
“I grew up in Manitoba, Canada, and my parents were part of a small curling club,” Henry recalled. “On the weekends, the whole family would go down and throw some stones for fun. I started when I was in sixth grade.”
Henry was transferred by his employer to Madison in the late 1970s, and was happy to find a city where the sport was both known and appreciated. He moved to Beaver Dam in 2004.
Explaining the game
“Not everybody understands the sport,” said Henry, “but we curlers love to explain it.”
In the game of curling, a 42-pound granite stone with a handle is thrown and slides down the ice. The goal is to land it closer than the opposing team's to the center of a 12-foot circle, called “the house.” But depending on how it’s delivered, the stone can curve, or curl — giving the sport its name — so the shot must be carefully considered. Sweeping clears debris from the ice and makes the rock slide faster. Sweeping also stops the rock from curling too much.
Henry was involved in competitive curling between the ages of 35 and 50. As an athlete, Henry represented the U.S. at two men's world championships, earning a bronze medal in 1986 and 1991.
Eventually, business and family obligations took precedence and Henry stopped competing. It was then time for his children, Debbie (McCormick) and Donnie, to get out the rocks and brooms.
“During my daughter’s high school years she got to be friends with another curler, Erika Brown, and it was Erika’s dad, Steve Brown, that I curled with,” said Henry. “When I was playing with Steve in 1988 we came in second in the Olympic trials. Our daughters were on the Olympic team at Nagano in 1998. We came full circle.”
Henry turned to coaching and served as assistant coach at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, for Debbie’s team. He was named USA Curling's Coach of the Year in 2007 and has received coaching honors at the Junior Nationals twice. He was head coach at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, and in addition has served as head coach at five women's world championships and the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
McCormick, who resides in Rio, represented the U.S. women’s curling team in four Olympic Games in 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014.
This is Henry’s second season away from coaching. He said he misses the athletes and the competitions very much and he is grateful that curling opened up the world to him.
“The world championships are in different countries every year and when I was coaching Debbie I went to Japan and Scotland and Switzerland. When I was competing we went to Switzerland and Germany. Coaching juniors in the nationals took me to Sweden and Denmark,” said Henry. “I miss visiting all those places but I’m at an age now where I enjoy not having a schedule.”
When asked if he had a favorite curling memory, Henry was quick with his answer.
“In 2003, just after the Salt Lake City Olympics, I was an associate coach and I was coaching my daughter’s team in Winnipeg at the world championships. We weren’t doing very well, we had lost four games. We won the next two games and made it into the playoffs. We won our semi-final game and advanced to the final game against a very experienced team from Nova Scotia. Debbie had to make the last shot,” Henry recalled. “We won that world championship — that was my proudest time!”
Henry still curls once a week in a recreational league and has no plans in stopping anytime soon.
“I know people in their 90s that curl,” he said. “They even have stick curling for people who can’t get down on the ice anymore. A stick goes in the handle of the rock and it’s pushed like in shuffleboard.
“Curling is a game of balance and strategy; it’s a great exercise for your mind and body.”
Henry said just like any game, curling takes some practice before people get the hang of it and he’s thrilled with all the interest the Olympics bring to the sport.
“During this Olympics, curling clubs across the U.S. held open houses in order to recruit new curlers for the upcoming season. Madison Curling Club had over 400 people last Saturday,” he said.
Curling is definitely a family-oriented endeavor and Henry is happy to report his passion for the sport is being passed to yet another generation.
“My 12-year-old and 10-year-old grandsons are playing and want help every week from grandpa,” he said with a smile.