Opinions

I used to curl with Alaska’s Olympians. Here’s what I’ll be thinking about as I watch them compete in Beijing.

Vicky Persinger and the Alaska junior curling champions

The speakers in the minivan bumped Ludacris – “Back seat, windows up…” – as Colin Hufman reached to turn it up further. In the driver’s seat, our long-suffering coach Bill Gryder navigated toward the Rochester Curling Club. Colin had a habit of spiking the volume during the raunchiest verses of the Dirty South rap we listened to on the way to and from our hotel, and Bill had long ago resigned himself to just letting it happen. It was early 2001, and the Alaska junior men’s curling team was on its way to the semifinals at the national championships.

I was the team’s alternate, the same spot on the team that Colin has this year on the U.S. Olympic squad as it seeks to defend its 2018 gold medal. What being the alternate meant for me, for practical purposes, was that I sat at the end of the ice sheet with a laptop, running the statistics software that tracked my teammates’ performance. If I played a game to spell someone who needed a break for a physical or mental reset, the decline in our overall skill was noticeable, even if I wasn’t the one tracking it with CurlStat. This is not the case with Colin, who is just as capable as the other four members of our Olympic team, and who has a knack for providing a spark when his team needs one — a fact I’m sure contributed to his selection for the Olympics.

I started curling in seventh grade, at the urging of my English teacher. I felt like I had nothing to lose, having proven mediocre-to-poor at baseball, basketball, soccer and wrestling. Also, my mother and her family are Canadians, and I wasn’t cut out for hockey, so I figured it was the only way to honor their legacy on the ice. I was decent, but nowhere near as good as Colin or the other kids who had been curling since they were able to walk.

Vicky Persinger, curling, Fairbanks Curling Club, Olympics, Olympian

Getting started right around when I did, though so small she couldn’t yet throw a rock all the way down the 150-foot sheet, was Vicky Persinger, the scion of Fairbanks’ most prominent curling family. The Persingers are numerous, and nearly all of them are excellent curlers; friends have half-joked that the Fairbanks Curling Club should host a “Persinger Spiel” — a tournament where each team that registers needs to include at least one Persinger. This would also solve an issue that often presents itself in Fairbanks curling spiels: If a team’s members are all Persingers, they’re the odds-on favorites to blow everyone else off the ice.

[With world-class skill and hometown pride, a Fairbanks curler slides toward Beijing]

Our junior men’s team took third place at nationals in 2001, though USA Curling somehow mailed me a runner-up medal a few months later (if anyone from USA Curling reads this, no, I will not send it back). The next year, I was in college out of state, but the rest of the team stayed together and won the junior national championship. In a testament to how small the curling world is, the team they beat in the championship match was helmed by John Shuster — who is now the skip of our Olympic team.

It was the first, and so far only, time that Alaska had won a junior national championship. At the curling club reception after they returned, a 9-year-old Vicky Persinger told Colin and his teammates what their win meant to her — how a kid from Fairbanks could grow up and win a national championship, maybe even win the Olympics. There was a spark lit in Vicky that day, and she’s nurtured it ever since.

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So how do you go from the Fairbanks Curling Club to the Beijing Olympics? The short answer: 20-plus years of hard, unrelenting work. Curling is a sport where just about anyone can be competitive, but its strategy can take decades to master — and its heartbreaks are enough to drive all but the most resilient off the ice. Colin moved to the Lower 48 to be closer to his team members and competition at its highest level, which is concentrated in the upper Midwest for U.S. players. Vicky is the rarest of Alaskan Olympians, alongside folks like Lydia Jacoby — those who compete at their sport’s highest level while still living in-state.

For more than a decade, Vicky has flown Outside for competitions and training with her team, working at a real estate title agency whose manager is also a curler and knows how much travel it takes to keep Olympic dreams alive. When her family could, they would go to bonspiels to cheer Vicky on, sometimes leaving me in charge of their chocolate lab Cocoa.

Vicky came tantalizingly close to making the Olympics once before — in 2017, when her team made the final at the U.S. trials, only to lose on the final shot. It was a devastating loss, she’s said since, but one that was liberating in its own way: Once you’ve been that close and lost, you feel like you’ve taken the worst the sport can throw at you, and you’re less inclined to go on tilt when things start falling apart. She kept that lesson with her at the qualifying tournament for the Olympics, where in the final game she rebounded from a couple of bad misses to close out the win that sent her and teammate Chris Plys to Beijing.

Despite their massive growth as curlers, both Vicky and Colin are very much the same people they were when we played together as kids. Colin is a goofy, earnest class clown with a shocking amount of directness and emotional intelligence. Vicky is an intensely focused, gracious teammate and competitor who’s so considerate she didn’t even celebrate on the ice after winning the final game of the qualifying tournament and finally realizing her dream of going to the Olympics — she remembered all too well what it felt like to be in the losing team’s shoes. The emotional weight of the game only became apparent when she ducked behind the scoreboard, where the cameras couldn’t see her, and let loose a ragged, relieved sob.

Vicky Persinger opens mixed doubles curling play at the Olympics Wednesday with matches against Australia at 3 a.m. and Italy at 4 p.m. Alaska time. Colin Hufman and the U.S. men’s curling team begin round-robin play Feb. 9 against Russia.

Tom Hewitt is the ADN’s opinion editor and a halfway (but only halfway) decent curler.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Tom Hewitt

Tom Hewitt is opinions editor of the ADN. He previously was editorial page editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and news director of KTVF and KXDF in Fairbanks.

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