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

Vicky Persinger, who practically grew up at the Fairbanks Curling Club, qualified to compete in mixed doubles at the Winter Olympics in February.

FAIRBANKS – Vicky Persinger pressed her fingers to her neck to warm them between throws on a quiet January morning at the Fairbanks Curling Club. It’s brisk in this building, but it’s home.

Like generations before her, she has long come here to play the game she loves or catch up with friends until she loses track of time. But on this day, she came for solitude, to keep her skills sharp in the weeks before she competes in her sport’s greatest moment. She’s the second-ever curler from Alaska to qualify for the Winter Olympics. Colin Hufman, who lives in Minneapolis but grew up in Fairbanks, will also go to the Olympics this year as an alternate for the men’s team.

Persinger pushed off from the hack with a fluid motion, her gaze forward, releasing the 42-pound stone to rumble across ice’s newly-pebbled surface. She looked as relaxed as she claimed to feel. Nervousness might come when she gets to China, but for now, Persinger said she’s only excited to represent her state, her city and this historic club.

“It’s going to be tough and it’s going to be a grind,” she said of herself and her mixed doubles partner, Chris Plys of Minnesota. “But I definitely feel like we’re capable of getting a medal.”

Home ice advantage

A lot of sports memories have been made on Second Avenue in Fairbanks, just west of downtown. The Fairbanks Curling Club neighbors the Carlson Center, home of UAF hockey and World Eskimo Indian Olympics. Across the road is Growden Field, home of Goldpanners and the storied Midnight Sun solstice baseball game.

Persinger has a few memories of her own. She practically grew up in this curling club. In curling, a centuries-old team sport with roots in Scotland, players take turns sliding 42-pound smooth granite stones toward a target at the opposite side of a 150-foot ice sheet. Only the team that lands the stone closest to the center scores points each round, or “end,” of a game.

Fairbanks Curling Club is as much a meticulously-maintained sports venue as a come-as-you-are family room for Alaska’s Interior. Founded in 1905 and claiming to be the oldest organized sports group in Alaska, it hosts play at all ages and levels. In non-pandemic times, it welcomes the community at large to come by, tip a glass and hang out. Show up often, and you’ll surely get recruited to play.

Curling, a sport with congeniality and etiquette written into its rules, prides itself on its family-friendly environment. A sign posted in the club’s lower level reminds players to “offer a hearty handclasp of friendship” and “play to win, but not to humble your opponent.”

“You walk in the door and you know you’re home,” said manager Debbie Hall, who was also Persinger’s preschool and first grade teacher. Some other clubs seem stale in comparison, said Persinger, a U.S. national team curler who has been traveling to play around the world for a decade.

That journey started here. As a youngster, she leapt between the club’s colored floor tiles and peeked under its lockers for change to buy candy. In one family photo, her mother holds her upright atop a rock as the toddler takes a ride. In another, she’s belly down on the ice giving the smooth granite a shove with her mittened hands.

“My grandparents played. My dad and my mom played. I think they might’ve met at the curling club. And all my uncles play and my cousins play and my sister plays,” Persinger said. “You weren’t expected to curl, but I did get dragged down to the curling club a lot.”

Persinger was five when she joined the club’s “Little Rockers” program for tots. Competitive even in the years that followed, she recalls being frustrated as some kids stopped showing up and new ones needed to learn the game from scratch. By age 10, she was throwing the rock the full length of the ice, impatient to join the adults.

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As a junior-level player, she was part of the state championship team each year from 2006 to 2012. Her team lost badly when she traveled to her first junior national tournament, but the trip exposed her to a higher level of play.

“I didn’t even know there was curling outside of Fairbanks,” said Persinger.

Her bonafides firmly established as she aged out of juniors, she resisted the pull to relocate to the Upper Midwest, the sport’s American hub, though there were a few temporary exceptions. In Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin, many curling clubs and top players live within easy driving distance of one another.

“The teams that we were playing against, they would go to all these bonspiels all the time,” she said. “They didn’t have that here. Our next curling club is six and a half hours away in Anchorage.”

Jessica Schultz, the first and only Alaskan to curl at the Olympics before now, can relate to the dilemma. Schultz grew up in Anchorage, which has a club smaller than the one in Fairbanks.

“When I was coming up, I was one of three, maybe four girls in the whole city that curled,” said Schultz, who now works as director of athlete services for USA Curling. “I think that’s the difference between us is that I did give in to (moving). That’s how I ended up in Minnesota. I give her kudos for being able to make it work.”

Persinger says the pressure to move from Alaska continues. But at age 29, she has long proven that she can perform with the game’s top tier despite the challenges of separation from teammates and long flights to bonspiels. She’s in her eighth season as a member of one of the three women’s teams supported by USA Curling.

The advantages of moving away wouldn’t make up for what she’d miss, she said.

“I am who I am because of two things. One is curling and the spirit of curling. There’s a lot behind the game, and I feel like it’s shaped me as a human being. And the other thing is being a woman from Alaska,” Persinger said.

“I like where I live,” she said.

Hopes and heartache

Persinger is building a resume that few in her sport can match. She was a member of a U.S. national championship team three times. Her teams have won a Continental Cup and the Players’ Championship, a Grand Slam of Curling event that no team of American women or men had won before.

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Schultz said Persinger is part of a modern era of curlers that have collectively advanced the game to new levels of precision and strategy worldwide. Rules of the game have changed in recent years because players and ice surfaces keep getting better and better.

“The shot-making basically comes down to millimeters…That alone is huge at the Olympic level that you won’t see at the club level,” Schultz said.

“These Olympic athletes make shots look simple, and then people go and try it at the club level and it’s hilarious. It’s fun to watch…,” she said. “And then to make them back-to-back or consistently is just not as common at all.”

If each victory was a building block toward Persinger’s Olympic dream, one loss proved just as foundational. That was in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2017. In the months leading up to it, Persinger spent months “living and breathing curling” in St. Paul to maximize the chances that her four-person women’s team would reach Pyeongchang.

They were talented and prepared, Persinger said, and reached the last game in a best-of-three finals after the first two had gone into extra ends. But she was left stunned when her team lost the deciding game by a point.

“Not to be dramatic, but it’s like someone died,” Persinger said.

Working through the pain helped her gain a perspective that has since served her in curling and in life, she said. Persinger met with a Minnesota sports psychologist, who encouraged her to find value in the journey more than the outcome of games, tournaments and four-year Olympic cycles.

“We place so much focus on the Olympics…,” she said. “You need to take a step back and realize all the things that are in the journey to get to the Olympics. What part of those do you enjoy? Because those are important too.”

The bitter memory also reminds her to empathize with her opponents when things go her way.

“Part of me, even when I win, totally feels for those who don’t, because I have been there,” she said.

Later that season, Persinger was approached by men’s national team curler Chris Plys. Plys, who had seen Persinger around since they were both junior players, suggested they team up for future doubles events.

Mixed doubles, which made its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, has many distinctions from four-person team curling. Sides throw five rocks per end, instead of 8. Games are 8 ends long, instead of ten. Players say swings in momentum occur frequently in doubles, and that no lead seems safe. Persinger said it seemed “two hours of chaos” at first.

Plys, 34, said in Persinger he found a high-caliber partner who is easygoing off the ice. And he admits he has tested her patience with the occasional practical joke. The two have forged a collaborative approach, a style not common to all mixed doubles teams. To watch them play is to see two people seeking consensus time and again.

Plys, who lives in Duluth and will also curl for the U.S. men’s team at the Beijing games, said he had no intention of encouraging her to move to the Lower 48 when they began their doubles journey. He feels similarly about his hometown.

“Being on the road as much as we are is already mentally taxing enough, at times,” he said. “Sometimes, just being home and having those familiarities around you, things that make you comfortable, are just as important as being together for an extra practice or two.”

Bumpy road to Beijing

If the heartbreak of 2017 served up lessons for Persinger, the Olympic Qualification finals in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, last month gave her a chance to put them to work. There, she and Plys led against a team from Russia, 5-2, after six ends, with a trip to Beijing on the line.

A broadcast announcer complimented the communication between Plys and Persinger, calling it calm and reassuring. The Fairbanksan wore a gold charm on her necklace, engraved with the coordinates to her family’s remote Interior cabin. It’s her favorite place in the world, she said.

“Look at those numbers for Vicky Persinger. Playing terrific with two ends to go,” the broadcaster said just as Persinger released the handle on her team’s first rock of the seventh end. But the shot was light, leaving her team an unwanted obstacle in front of the house, the target where points are scored.

“That’s the first real mistake we’ve seen from her,” the announcer said. “Is there a slight momentum change happening?”

It got worse. With her team’s last rock of the end, Persinger aimed for a double, a shot to clear two of her opponent’s stones. It was makeable, but the throw clipped her team’s own stone and deflected out of play.

“I threw it so horribly and missed, and I instantly threw my face into my hands,” she said.

The Russians pulled within a point. The U.S. retained the important final-stone advantage, but had opened a door for anguish. Some dreams were about to be broken, the announcer reminded viewers, and others were about to come true.

“It can be kind of hard to watch,” he said.

Recalling the moment from his home in Duluth, Plys said Persinger has an “elite” ability to set the past aside and recalibrate. She had proven it at the U.S. Olympic Trials, which is how they earned their spot in the Netherlands.

“We had an incredibly difficult shot, and a precise shot, to win the trials,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her ability to do that.”

In the Netherlands, Persinger turned her thoughts to her very next throw. With it, she bumped Russia’s guard stone, allowing Plys to place stones in the house that Russia had trouble defending.

“I somehow was able to zone out the entire seventh end and dial in exactly how I wanted to make that shot, and I made it perfect,” she said. “Four years ago, I don’t even know if I would’ve been able to do that.”

The match ended in true curling fashion, not with an explosion of emotion, but with subdued knuckle bumps between sides. Persinger hugged her teammate, then ducked behind a scoreboard so the cameras wouldn’t catch her tearing up. She’s not a spotlight seeker, she said.

On the flight home, Persinger thought about hugging her parents. Fifty people greeted her at the airport when she landed in Fairbanks to chant “U.S.A.” and hold up homemade signs.

Balance and release

Back in Fairbanks this month, Persinger’s sister, Tina, joined her at practice to hold a broom and offer feedback. These days, practicing is pretty much the only thing on her schedule outside her home.

She said she’s fortunate to have a job at a title insurance company that affords her leave to curl. She finds it amusing when people assume success equals wealth in curling.

Before she leaves for Beijing, she said she planned to drive by her office to wave at her co-workers who wish they could throw a sendoff party. Her non-curling friends are bragging about the Olympian among them, she said, even if some need the occasional explanation on curling rules.

Persinger said she’s not sure how much longer she’ll keep this lifestyle up. Living in Alaska offers other opportunities too, and she’s missed out on a few. She thinks about getting her pilot’s license one day, or hiking the Chilkoot Trail, or learning to cross-country ski. If she’s going to make the most of her college degree in air traffic control, it needs to happen soon, she said.

“It would be really hard to quit curling, but there are a ton of other things I want to do in life as well,” she said.

First she’ll enjoy her Olympic moment. Plys agrees with his teammate: They have the talent to compete for a medal, he said.

Persinger figures her games might be shown on the big TV over the hearth at the Fairbanks Curling Club, and on others that hang over its ice. Debbie Hall, the manager, said the board is considering whether it will be possible to host watch parties to celebrate a momentous occasion for one of their own.

“We’re all so very proud,” Hall said.

Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at mlester@adn.com.