Thoughts on the Women’s World Championships

So, Curling Canada created a bubble for a lot of big curling events since about February, and this was the last event in that curling bubble.  The Women’s World Championships was supposed to happen right as Covid started, and so the teams were either in town or on their way to the city when things were locked down and it was cancelled, which meant that Kerri Einarson’s team couldn’t actually play in the tournament that they had won the right to play in by winning the Scotties.  This year, they came back to the Scotties and won it to get a second chance, only this time the Olympic birth for next year was also on the line, with them having to finish in the top six teams to avoid forcing either them or the team that wins the Roar of the Rings from playing a qualification tournament just to get in.

And then the team started 1 – 5.

Now, when this happened there were a lot of comments on it on some of the sports sites, more than you’d get for curling.  Many of them were lamenting that Einarson’s team got to go at all, when we should just be sending, they said, Jennifer Jones or Rachel Homan.  And also some of them were saying that Val Sweeting should be throwing the last stones instead of Einarson (everyone on Einarson’s team used to skip their own team).  For the most part, there was just great disappointment, I think, that of the last two world championships Canada sent relatively unknown or new teams — Einarson this time, Chelsea Carey the last time it was held — and the teams did not do all that well, whereas most of the other countries tend to send the same teams all the time … and the last two times could be used to show that a team might get hot for the Scotties but not be able to compete at the Worlds, or even at the Olympics.

The thing is, Canada had an insanely difficult schedule to start with.  Of their five losses, they lost to Switzerland, Team RCF (Russia, basically) and Sweden, who finished 1-2-3 in the standings.  They also lost to the United States, who ended up winning the bronze medal.  And finally, they lost to Germany, who had to play with three players due to positive Covid tests before the tournament even began, but who was playing their hearts out and surprised a lot of people (and the commentators noted that sometimes having three players could be an advantage because the same people throw more rocks and so get a better handle for the weights than a four person team).  So there were three games that were going to be toss-ups and depend on which team figures out the ice better, and then two other games where they could easily lose even if they were favoured to win.  If they even struggled a little, they were going to be in very tough … and they did, so they were.

Of course, after that start they went 6 – 1 the rest of the way to actually make the playoffs and guarantee Canada a spot in the Olympics, before losing to Sweden again to bow out.

The big thing is that after that start they could have collapsed and could have gotten heavily down on themselves.  This, I think, is what happened to Rachel Homan at the last Olympics, where she started off against the eventual gold and silver medal winners which kinda derailed her for much of the tournament.  So, yes, they were playing the weaker teams in the second half, but they still had to beat them.  And while people chided them for losing to Germany, the game that I think they really needed to have and didn’t was the game against Japan, as if they had made a clean sweep in the last half they would have played Denmark in the qualification round instead of Sweden and would have had a much better chance of winning.  But they didn’t give up even when things looked bleak and did have to beat some pretty decent teams — Scotland being the most notable one — to carry that through.

As for Sweeting throwing the last stones, the commentators noted that now that she’s accepted being a third she seems to be a lot better because she seems to be able to be more relaxed.  And while they talked about her doing things like meditation to facilitate that, I think a big part of it is that Sweeting was never all that great at making shots under pressure.  The commentators noted that she got down on herself a lot, which was true, but I don’t think it was in a frustrated or angry way like Rachel Homan might or a depressed way like Chelsea Carey.  I still recall the event where nothing was going right for her and when she finally made a shot she exclaimed “Yay!  I made one!” and then managed to win that game.  So she was always more positive, but when the pressure was on she couldn’t really rise to the occasion, and when the pressure was off — as it was in that other tournament when the team was behind and even making a shot was a good thing — she was able to make great shots.  At third, there is much less pressure for her because she knows that Einarson is behind her and can make the shots.  I also think that this can let her bias her shots towards the harder but more impressive shots, which is why she makes more impressive shots, whereas when the entire end is on the line she’s going have to skew more conservative, which means that she doesn’t try the more impressive shots unless she was desperate, and Einarson is much, much better than Sweeting at making desperate shots.

As for Canada constantly sending different teams, the reason is that Canada has a lot of really good teams which makes the Scotties and the Olympic trials very, very competitive.  You can’t rest on your laurels in Canadian curling (either men’s or women’s).  The other countries, however, either don’t have that level of competition or might even consciously or unconsciously bias themselves away from that by allocating resources to only one team and hoping that they can carry it off.  It isn’t clear that that is a better way to go, since Canada is always in the mix and if one team starts to slow down or struggle — as Jones seems to be lately and Homan did for a while — there’s another team to step in to take a run at it.  And remember, this method made Canada one of if not the most successful team in Olympic curling so far — 2018 was a rather spectacular failure on that part — so it might not be all bad.

And we must not forgot that sending the team that was having the better season might not change things.  After all, Einarson had the better season this year and so would have gone anyway, and Homan was flying before the 2018 Olympics and then crashed when she got there.

And even the team that won this year — Switzerland, beating RCF 4 – 2 in the final — might show that, as while they’ve won a remarkable number of titles since 2012, the commentators noted that either they win or they don’t even make the playoffs … and this year was the first year they’d won back-to-back, if I recall correctly.  So if their main team stumbles, that’s all the country really has to play with, and so it really is all on them.  For Canada, if a team stumbles at the start of the season and so at the Scotties another team will take their place.

Anyway, the last event of this curling season is the World Mixed Doubles Championship, where Einarson again — this time teamed up with Brad Gushue — again has to try to make sure that Canada makes it to the Olympics in the event.  Perhaps here she can do it with less drama.

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