- Is U.S. curling taking off after 2018 Olympic gold? A look at the obstacles facing a team of America's top prospects.
The fourth-best American men’s curling team stands in front of the Aeroflot desk at JFK Airport with bags packed for Siberia.
After a week in Nova Scotia for the World Junior Championships, Team Stopera is headed to Krasnoyarsk, Russia, the host site of the 2019 Winter University Games, to face older competition. Long removed from its days as the center of the Soviet “gulag archipelago,” Krasnoyarsk is the center of the largest winter sports competition since the 2018 Olympics, marketing it as "Real Winter" to distinguish from fraudulent, non-Siberian winters. The 2018-19 curling season has brought a predictably grueling travel schedule for Team Stopera—it has already played in rural China, Nova Scotia, Minnesota and Ontario this winter. It’s more difficult than last year’s schedule, which featured trips to North Dakota and Scotland.
“We're all at least silver status on Delta,” skip Andrew Stopera said. “Luc [Violette] and Graem [Fenson] are gold, and we definitely care about it a little too much. We don’t even really get to see the cities we visit; we spend most of the time curling or at the hotel.”
For the athletes of USA Curling’s High Performance Program, this is business as usual. A select group of men and women spend months hauling their brooms and slinging rocks around the globe. Team Stopera has won three straight Junior National Championships, which means they have been the American representatives in three cycles of international competition. Right now, they are the USA’s top curling prospects, if such a thing can be assessed.
Team Stopera consists of Andrew Stopera (skip, 21), Luc Violette (lead, 20), Ben Richardson (second, 20) and Graem Fenson (third, 19). The team competes in under-21 Junior events, while playing a regular World Curling Tour schedule. Recent success has brought them to No. 58 in the world on the World Curling Zone rankings. However, this is the final hurrah at the Junior level under the Stopera banner; Stopera is aging out at the end of the season.
“We’ll see what happens,” Stopera said, when asked of his future team plans. “Obviously, we’d like to keep this group together and achieve whatever we can.”
To reach the top of any sport in the 21st century, there must be ludicrous amounts of sacrifice. For young athletes who wish to excel in increasingly professionalized systems, school and social lives often must fade into the background. Curling is not immune to this, even if everyone involved in the sport is an unpaid amateur, with day jobs and non-curling lives to manage. The international travel gets expensive: Team Stopera’s trip to Krasnoyarsk is entirely out of pocket. The Junior U.S. Women’s Curling team is not attending. It’s not uncommon for curling teams to struggle with funding and sponsorship issues. Team Stopera ran a GoFundMe in 2017 that raised $1,500, but expenses have dwarfed that number since.
The margins are razor-thin. A weeklong round-robin generally isn’t a large enough sample size to determine long-term success. In curling, there is a mathematically optimal way to play every end, much like poker or chess. But instead of simply moving a piece, curlers are given the most nonprobabilistic of variables to execute their plans: human error and the nature of ice. This trip to Siberia will come down to a few centimeters, just like the World Junior Championships in Nova Scotia, which eventually pivoted around a 7-6 loss to a lower-ranked Swiss team that cost Team Stopera a shot at the knockout stage.
But the intensity and international travel of curling has a distinct appeal. While it can be incredibly painful and stressful, it is unavoidable and extremely life-affirming to perform at such a high level.
“I love the aspect of curling that requires us to spend a lot of time on the road away from home,” Fenson said. “It can get difficult to manage overlapping school, work and curling schedules but I have learned to really crave the hustle that is required.”
Richardson, a native of Issaquah, Wash., embodies the dualist nature of the sport. When not curling, he studies cello performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
“The way I've gotten by with it is just talking to teachers way, way in advance about my schedule,” he said. “It's nice for me because I go to a music school. They say, ‘Oh it's the curling kid, I've had this kid before. I know he's able to do curling and come back and have good grades.’”
Richardson tries to bring his electric cello around on international trips to practice as much as he can. Unlike his teammates, he’s been in school this entire winter, which means he cannot travel to Siberia for two weeks, so he needs to be replaced by Graem’s brother Alex Fenson, 25. Stopera, the Fensons and Violette are all taking the winter quarter off, delaying their degree progress to pursue curling.
“School is definitely the hardest part.” Team Stopera coach Mark Lazar said. “Getting professors to understand, trying to fit studying into a schedule, it’s the biggest challenge.”
In addition to missing large chunks of college, the team’s success has also led to other scheduling constraints. Richardson and Violette were both rising mixed doubles curlers, but have cut back their events in that discipline. There’s also a problem of distance: The team was selected before the 2015-16 season without little regard for geography. Stopera is based in Briarcliffe, N.Y. while also attending Northwestern. Richardson bounces between Cleveland and Washington state. Violette trains at the lone curling club in the state of Washington, and the Fensons are based in the curling heartland of Bemidji, Minn.
High-level curling is a small world, especially in the United States. Most curlers are on a first-name basis, and switch between various teams constantly. Much of Team Stopera is dynastic. (Curling’s diversity pool, consequently, remains shallow.) Stopera’s father is a longtime curler himself. Graem and Alex Fenson are sons of Pete Fenson, who won bronze for the U.S. at the Turin Olympics in 2006. Violette also picked up curling from his father. Richardson’s parents were musicians, but his grandmother was a curler and convinced him to take up the sport at a young age. The only non-familial connection comes from coach Mark Lazar, who picked up the sport in a college gym class and was hooked ever since.
But for this select group, there has been great progress. This year saw the team win its first professional title in the St. Paul Cash Spiel in October (curling events are called bonspiels), defeating a strong field of senior teams. Young curlers are an interesting breed. Curling requires a good level of physical fitness, but reaching an elite level in curling comes down to experience and practice. Curlers generally peak in their mid-20s and early 30s, and can play into their 40s and 50s. None of the 15 men who medalled at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics were under 24.
One of those medalists in PyeongChang was 36-year-old John Shuster, whose team defeated Sweden to win the first American curling gold in history. Shuster, the 2004 Junior National Champion skip, worked his way up the ranks for years before his Olympic moment. Since the medal, the whole team agreed that general interest in curling in the United States has increased. Its effect in the short-term, though, appears limited.
“We directly have not seen many significant changes,” Violette said, though he did note a few. “USA Curling brought on a new partnership with Twin City Orthopedics and the Minnesota Vikings, which got us access to facilities and a trainer for our World Junior Championships trip.”
The week of play at the Ivan Yarygin Sports Palace hinged on a 6-5 loss to China in extra ends. Team Stopera came back from a 4-0 deficit to tie the score, but eventually lost in the 10th. That loss dropped them to 1-3, well out of a playoff spot. Although the team defeated eventual gold medalists Norway later in the tournament, the close losses early knocked them out. But such is the life of an itinerant curling team. Some weeks, the rocks slide away, and you’re left patiently waiting for the flight home from Siberia.