GANGNEUNG, South Korea—At the pinnacle of sport, the margins shrink. Gather the best in the world and the difference at the top often won’t be that much. Picture the shock on Ester Ledecká’s face when she unexpectedly won the women’s super-G by a hundredth of a second. Scroll through the luge times, measured out to the thousandths.
And in curling, sometimes they pull out a measuring contraption because the rocks are so close to each other the difference is indistinguishable to the human eye.
The tiny margins were on display during Monday’s session at the Gangneung Curling Centre, which featured a raucous crowd, a tightening of the standings and a potential Olympics-saving win for the Americans. Maybe.
Team USA entered its date with Canada in precarious circumstances. Six games into a 10-team round robin, the Americans had won two and lost four. After a losing to Norway the previous night, the U.S. needed to run the table and receive some help if it sought a medal for the first time since a 2006 bronze. The first team that stood in the way was defending Olympic champion.
Mighty Canada itself entered with two losses already, giving the match tremendous importance not just for bragging rights along the 49th parallel, but within the Olympic curling table as well.
Despite the match’s major implications, USA-Canada was the undercard in its own gym. The way the curling arena is set up for the Olympics, four matches occur simultaneously on four parallel sheets. More than two-thirds of the eyeballs on Monday were focused two sheets over, where South Korea took on Italy. The host nation, participating in the men’s curling tournament for the first time, came into play in last place at 1–6. But after scoring three in the first end, the South Koreans led wire-to-wire—alternating scoring frames for much of the game and then finishing off an 8–6 victory. And each time they scored, the crowd erupted. From all corners of the arena, engulfing each of the other three matches.
“You have to notice it,” U.S. vice-skip Tyler George said after the game. “Because when it’s loud out there while you’re shooting, a lot of times you can’t hear the skip or somebody calling sweep, where you’re trying to communicate what shot you’re gonna play.” But no problem, he said, the Americans resorted to hand signals to make sure they were on the same page.
The set-up forced the same conditions for both sides; it was just startling to see Olympians play in a tornado of brief noise bursts that had nothing to do with them. Not that they minded though. It is the Olympics, after all.
“Where would you rather be?” George asked rhetorically. “It’s just a blast out there.”
The Americans took an early lead aided by two measurements that came down in their favor. Both times breathlessly waiting to be beneficiaries of an endearing quirk featuring all the drama of the NFL’s first-down chain with infinitely more precision.
Those tiny margins made all the difference as the two teams traded scores. For five ends, each side scored when it had the hammer, before Team USA managed a steal in the sixth. But in the eighth, Team USA missed a great opportunity. Canada had two rocks in the house, but the U.S. had a shot to curl one final stone onto the button. But skip John Schuster and his team of sweepers couldn’t quite land it inside Canada’s closest, and fell into a 5–5 tie instead of taking a 6–4 lead.
The drama came down to the final rock in the final end. Canada had the hammer, trailing 7–5. They tied the match, because there seemed to be no other way to end it in than extra ends.
Now cut back to the Koreans, because no account of USA-Canada would be complete without an update on the home team. With most of the gym standing and applauding, the Koreans were sweeping one final rock frantically, needing every last inch on the shot that closed things out.
First: Euphoria. Then: Exodus.
The majority of the home fans shuffled out. After 10 ends in a constant swirl of noise, a tense silence fell over the arena for the extra frame between North American rivals. Suddenly fans could hear individual curlers and vice versa.
“It is a little bit eerie after that,” George said. “You’re like ‘OK, well now nobody’s making any noise.’ But that’s kind of how curling goes.”
That’s not to say the U.S. and Canada fans didn’t make any noise; there were flags, signs and chants. Earlier in the day one corner section of Americans even sang Happy Birthday to Matt Hamilton—twice—loud enough to draw a tip of the cap from the mustachioed birthday boy.
And the fans who stayed were treated not only to one last dramatic frame, but the sort of shared camaraderie that results from taking in 11 ends together and watching three other matches come to a close. One fan wearing a Green Bay Packers t-shirt and cheesehead started waving his American flag at a group of Canadians all the way across the arena. Their group, with one fan in a Canada hockey jersey and another in a red Marcus Stroman Blue Jays uniform, dished it right back in a friendly-rivalry type fashion.
Somewhere in the quiet, the Americans found a win. Then it wasn’t quiet much more. There were cheers from the American fans, chants of USA and several dejected Canadians. Fans of both sides then applauded the efforts of both sides too.
It took an extra frame and a couple measurements to confirm things. But the U.S. men beat Canada in Olympic play for the first time. And though they still sit on the outside of the bubble, they closed to within one win of the teams currently slated to qualify for the quarterfinals.
By the tiniest of margins.