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Vancouver Games curling preview

Why should you care about curling? Because all the cool kids are doing it. San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis tried out the sport in November, fell hard, and a couple months later was named an honorary captain of the U.S. men's team. Around that same time, political fundit and Sports Illustratedcover boyStephen Colbert tried out for the team, and fortunately for Team USA, he did not make it. (This, despite besting 2006 bronze medalist John Shuster in the "Bonspiel of the Century").

In short, you'd care more about curling if you actually played it, and just 16,000 of us do here in the U.S. That's about less than two percent as many who do in Canada, where -- as with hockey -- anything short of gold for the host country in this year's Games would be cause for civil unrest.

Kevin Martin, Canada: This 43-year-old Alberta-born "skip" -- or captain -- earned the nickname "The Old Bear" for his two-decade tenure in the game that includes three Olympic appearances -- the first in 1992, when curling was just an exhibition sport. The only thing missing from his gilded career is gold. (The closest he came to it was silver at Salt Lake 2002.) His reputation as the field's top strategist and rapport with 31-year-old countryman John Morris -- who throws tantrums as spectacularly as he does the rock -- give him his best shot ever to climb that top step.

David Murdoch, Great Britain: "To the elite few who curl for cash -- don't scoff: There's a tidy living to be made competing in worldwide skins games -- this 31-year-old Scot has emerged as a spoiler. How fitting that Canada was the last country to fall victim to his hustle. At a nationally televised skins game in Ontario earlier this month, he rallied the Brits to an upset win over Martin's home squad to claim a share of $70,000.

Thomas Ulsrud, Norway: For this 38-year-old Oslo native, the bronzing didn't stop at the European ('02 and '09) and world championships ('06, '08-09). He also owns two of the largest tanning salons in Norway, which his girlfriend minds when he's away competing. His directive: "You bring food to the table, I bring fame to the family." But if he can't lead Norway to its first gold since '02, as legendary skip Pål Trulsen did before him, there's a chance Ulsrud could bring home something far worse: infamy.

Anette Norberg, Sweden: With eight world championship medals and two Olympic golds -- the most recent won in Turin -- this 43-year-old is such a "rock star" in the sport and in her home country that she was featured in a music video for the Swedish heavy metal band Hammerfall. An actuary by training, Norberg is far more conservative off the rink than on it. You might think her team's status as the reigning champs would have emboldened her to talk trash about the host country, but so far she's been a font of flattery. Recently, she told the Calgary Herald: "It's easier to play against teams who play the game you want to play yourself."

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Debbie McCormick: A three-time Olympian and seven-time national champ, the 36-year-old owes her curling savvy partly to nature (she was born in Saskatoon and moved to Wisconsin as a toddler) and partly to nurture. Her dad, Wally Henry, coaches the USA women.

John Shuster: Chances are you'll hear the 27-year-old Duluth, Minn., resident and faux-Colbert nemesis before you see him. As the skip of the men's team, he determines the shot placement and exhorts his sweepers (or the rotating pair of teammates that chaperone the stone down the intended path to a far-flung target by burnishing a smooth surface just ahead) by yelling at them from the bottom of his diaphragm. Incidentally, it's a skill that also comes in handy in his day job as a bartender back home.

On the men's side, Martin and Team Canada will look to avenge their loss to Murdoch and Great Britain, and Martin will be assured another riveted national television audience if the countries' ultimate showdown happens in the gold medal round. On the women's side, the Americans are hoping for another shot at the defending Olympic champion Swedes, who also pipped Team USA at the '06 world championships. But the McCormick & Co. will have to get past Switzerland (which claimed silver in Turin) and Canada (bronze) first.

China is another emerging "rock star" in the curling world. When they broke onto the scene a decade years ago, the Chinese were known primarily for being technically sound. With just 200 active curlers, participation remains relatively low. But as their international experience has increased, so too has their strategic acumen -- the latter thanks in large part to the hiring of coach Dan Rafael, a Montreal native who would bring the Chinese teams back to his home country to cut their teeth in competition.

The women's team has been the fastest to break through, claiming gold at last year's Curling World Championships. The victory was the first by an Asian nation and a shot across the bow at the European and North American countries that have long dominated the sport. Leading the Chinese is 25-year-old shooter Wang Bingyu, who goes by "Betty" but could just as easily be called Breitling for her consistent precision.

Women: Feb. 26, 6 p.m. ETMen: Feb. 27, 6 p.m. ET