The most fascinating thing to come out of yesterday's seesaw, nailbiting Olympic women's curling final is a question:
Will either of today's men's finalist teams wilt under the Olympic pressure?
If curlers and curling fans ever doubted the very existence of "Olympic pressure" in their sport before, they must accept it now.
Look what we had here, at the rollicking Vancouver Olympic Centre. And think about it.
Olympic rookies who had, by and large, played over and above any pressure gauges for nearly two weeks... and same for an earlier week of Olympic Trials competition. The Canadian back end of skip Cheryl Bernard and third Susan O'Connor had, in particular, looked like Olympic veterans. Tight games? No sweat. Conservative strategy leading deliberately to tight games? No sweat. These girls looked like they were having fun. Betcha they were.
But it all came crashing down in the semis, and then in the final. Tentative releases, missed weight calls, errant shots and a new kind of nailbiting for their fans and followers. This was different. There were cracks in their force field. And it was there for all to see.
Sure, there were heroics. Bernard drawing against piles of Swedish granite in the early going, saving her team's bacon. Gutsy. But still, things felt different.
As for the victorious Swedes... they weren't much better. The Olympic veterans, the most decorated women's curling team in history, went from a steamrolling semifinal juggernaut to a mental mess as the final wore on. The efficiency of two early deuces following Canadian mistakes began to evaporate as nearly every soft inturn curled off the sheet. By the time Norberg threw her draw against two Canadian stones in the seventh, she had lost it, and the stone fell far short.
Canada, heartened by this development, gained strength. Another gift steal, and a padded lead. Sweden's strategy in the 10th end was, in a word, abysmal, whereas Canada's choice to leave multiple stones in the house was merely foolish. Still, needing two to tie the match, Norberg left the door open and only a miss from O'Connor made a jam opportunity a reality and... it was, inevitably, up to The Curling Gods to decide: would Canada win, or would there be an extra end?
We all know what happened: Bernard missed a not-quite routine shot, on a newish patch of ice... but still, yet more evidence of this Olympic pressure thing.
In the extra frame, Canadian lead Cori Bartel wilted, and despite some hitting heroics from Carolyn Darbyshire, Team Norberg were pinching themselves. Junk everywhere, just what they dreamed of. Another miss from O'Connor. More junk out front.
In the end, Bernard had another shot for the win. A double takeout, but she knew she could save her shooter. It was right there, for the second time. But she missed again.
Norberg and her troops – the firecracker Eva Lund, Norberg's sister Cathrine Lindahl and longtime lead Anna Le Moine (nee Svard nee Bergstrom) – are the world's best, but at times they didn't look good at all. Their mid-game switch from confident robotics to staggering confusion was shocking. Regardless, they have the history and the resume to back up this back-to-back Olympic gold.
As for the Canadians, they accomplished far more, dating back to the Trials in December, than was expected by many a pundit. They had a plan and they stuck to it. They picked each other up, constantly working a magical team dynamic to perfection. They experienced something firsthand, in front of teeming and screaming home crowds, that will never be experienced again. And after all those rassles with the pressure over the final days, they could still taste gold, on the last stone, on the final throw.
All in all, it made for thrilling and compelling sport theatre.
What are we in store for today?
[Photos copyright The Curling News by Anil Mungal. Click to increase size]