Is there room for amateurs at the Olympics?

Published: February 18, 2014, 10:09 am, by Dena Rosenberry

Jessica Schultz in SochiAfter another disappointing finish for U.S. curling teams at the Winter Olympics, there is much talk about how our national teams are chosen, coached and trained. Actually, it’s a conversation that has been going on for years.

Each member of our 2014 women’s team has years of competitive experience on the world stage, and they’d been playing together as a team for at least 1 1/2 years. From all reports that I heard, they’d been playing well together, communicating well, really growing as a team. They’re friends, they get along. Heck, they placed 4th at worlds.

Two members of the men’s team had previous Olympic experience and the other team members are top-level players. The team has been playing well together, growing in experience and working their tails off to get to Sochi.

Team USA SochiAnd still, they faltered at just the wrong time – on the Olympic stage.

U.S. players are amateur athletes who devote many, many hours a week to training, practicing and competing. While working, going to school, raising kids, dealing with aging parents. The stuff of life.

While curling is popular in the U.S., there are nowhere near as many curlers here as in Canada, say, so it’s tougher to get regular high-quality games and competition often requires travel.

The U.S. changed the build-up to the Olympics before Vancouver, with the teams winning Olympic trials heading off to train with a designated coach. They worked with a sports psychologist as well, to prep them for the grind of the curling season and the onslaught of the Games.

More changes were made when choosing the teams and coaching before Sochi. Additional changes will be made now.

USA Curling is spending money on a developmental program for 2018 and some say it should pay for two “semi-professional” teams that would prepare for the 2018 Games.

Others wonder if such moves, as other countries have taken, would kill the charm of a sport that is known for promoting amateurs into world competition.

Yet that may be what it takes to win a medal at the Olympics.

IMG_1439Sure, there are other curlers competing at the Olympics who are not full-time curlers. But I believe most of them have regular high-level competition nearby. I don’t know the difference in coaching and training.

The thousands of curlers who are competing at lower levels, working their way up to the national level and dreaming of international competition might be discouraged if all of USA Curling’s time, money and energy is devoted to the top few teams that might bring gold.

Is it better to pour money into a few people in hopes they will win Olympic medals and spark more interest in curling by doing so?

Is it better to pour money into developing the next levels of curlers with the hope that raising local competition will bring us crop after crop of worthy contenders for medals?

Some of my colleagues say that one of the things that attracts them to curling is the “everyman” aspect of the players. They can relate to them – except for the curling obsession.

Rick Patzke, chief operating officer for USA Curling, told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune the organization must re-examine the way it supports its athletes and chooses teams if it hopes to improve its Olympic performance.

“The rest of the world has significantly raised its game, while we’ve fallen behind by not getting that much better. We need to help our best get even better, so they can rise to the level of play required,” Patzke said.

What’s a gold medal in curling worth? Comment below or email me at dena.rosenberry@gazette.com.