NOTE: This article was originally published Feb. 24, 2021 on sportsnet.ca.
Joanne Courtney and Kerri Einarson are competing with heavy hearts at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts this week.
Courtney has always worn two hats from the front end for Ontario skip Rachel Homan and the frontlines as a registered nurse with Alberta Health Services. Einarson, skip of defending champion Team Canada, multitasks as a rehabilitation assistant at a long-term care facility in Manitoba. Both have experienced up close how the COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected residents, patients and their families but also the toll it’s taken on their colleagues putting in hours around the clock under these stressful and worrisome times.
All of those people are on their minds at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts and will continue to be in their thoughts through the Canadian mixed doubles championship and two Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling events also taking place in a hub city “bubble” concept at Calgary’s Markin MacPhail Centre inside WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park.
“I hope people enjoy it and it can bring some joy to peoples’ homes because there’s not a whole lot going on these days,” Courtney told sportsnet.ca Monday. “I definitely think about my co-workers and the patients a lot and I hope that everyone is doing well and staying safe. Just that burnout and that exhaustion from this pandemic lasting for so long, I think about those people a lot and I hope they’re taking care of themselves.”
Einarson said during a media Zoom call Monday her facility had a COVID-19 case back in April that caused a scare for herself and everyone there.
“I am so grateful though to be working where I am and to all of those health care workers and nurses and all of the frontline workers, it’s tough,” Einarson said. “I see it in my residences’ faces every day when they can’t see their families. It’s extremely hard. I try to be there for them as much as possible and give them those hugs that they don’t get to get from their families.”
The pandemic essentially wiped out the curling tour season – both Homan and Einarson teams only played one game in November at an event in Okotoks, Alta., before that too was halted – allowing Courtney and Einarson to focus where they’ve been needed most.
“I’ve never worked this much through the fall and the winter, especially once curling got shut down,” Courtney said. “I pretty much went back to work full time, so that’s been a change. Obviously, it’s stressful and very different to be at work at the hospital right now but I’m grateful to have a job, grateful to be able to continue to help out and care for people when they’re sick.
“As always, I’m inspired by my co-workers and patients on the unit. The resiliency that you see and people with a chronic condition that have no choice, they have to come into the hospital multiple times a week for their treatments through a pandemic. It’s very inspiring to see.”
An emotional Einarson explained how one resident asked for her number to keep in touch while she’s away.
“She phoned me the first day and she was just excited to see curling back on TV,” Einarson said. “I am so grateful for all their support, my co-workers and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be able to be here today. I really, truly appreciate everything they do.”
Maple Leaf or bull’s eye?
You hear it from athletes of all sports how heavy it is to represent Canada and wear the Maple Leaf on your back. The pressure boils as expectations from fans and even from yourself turn up.
The Scotties Tournament of Hearts is the first time Einarson has had the opportunity to compete as Team Canada. Einarson defeated Homan in last year’s national final and was all set to play at the worlds in Prince George, B.C., when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the event just two days before the opening draw.
Einarson is looking to become the first back-to-back Scotties champion since Homan in 2013 and 2014 and is fully aware as defending champion the Maple Leaf on her back might as well be a bull’s eye.
“It definitely puts a target on our back and every team has been playing really well against us,” said Einarson, who is also No. 1 on the Canadian Team Ranking System. “We know we need to play well if we want to win those games. It’s almost like wearing the [Manitoba] buffalo as well, everyone was targeting you all the time. If we can keep being sharp and stay focusing on [ourselves], we should be good.”
Fortunately, Einarson can count on coach Heather Nedohin to mentor her team along the way. Nedohin won the tournament in 1998 playing third for Cathy King and skipped her own squad to the title in 2012.
“I think for us it’s really when your mental skills click in,” Nedohin said. “For me personally, yes, it’s an absolute honour to wear the Maple Leaf and you want to raise your game but more than anything I think we play the rocks. We put on our own jacket but I guess we just play the rocks, play who we are and stick with our game. Yes, the pride is oozing when you have the Maple Leaf on you and you want to play even better but the standard just sets within. Playing as ourselves and keeping I guess ‘Team Einarson’ alive, that’s who we are.”
So far wearing the Maple Leaf hasn’t fazed Einarson’s squad and confidence has been a huge factor.
“Definitely winning last year, it just boosts my confidence even more,” Einarson said following the team’s fourth consecutive win to begin their title defence. “I just feel so relaxed out there and feeling comfortable with everything.”
Courtney leads the way
It’s been a major adjustment period for Team Homan with Courtney sliding over to lead stones, Edmonton’s Sarah Wilkes joining at second and their skip due to give birth to her second child in a couple months.
Although the roster moves took place almost a year ago, Courtney has had just that one game back in November to throw lead stones in a competitive environment. It wasn’t even a full game either as Homan dusted Manitoba’s Jennifer Jones 7-1 in only five ends. Courtney believes the keys for her team this week are patience and self-compassion, especially given their high standards.
“The expectation to play well at the Scotties is always going to be there despite the fact that we haven’t had anywhere close to the preparation that we normally would have,” said Courtney, who won the Scotties and world titles with Team Homan in 2017. “Integrating a new player, me playing a new position, Rachel being extremely pregnant, there’s a lot of things happening on our team that are different this year.
“We’re still adjusting to the ice conditions and learning the rocks and everything like that. We’re just trying to stay patient, not get too frustrated, stay tough out there, keep learning and regardless of the outcome this week, we’re going to learn a lot, especially for myself as a lead. … Lots of learning opportunities there to get a handle on a new position and keep pushing towards next season because hopefully, the Olympics will go.”
Courtney is regarded as one of the best sweepers in the game and if her team couldn’t arrive at the Scotties in peak form on the ice they could at least make sure they’re still in top shape physically to limit the inevitable wear and tear.
“Usually after the first event or two of the year you’re pretty wiped out and unfortunately our first event of the year is our nationals, which is a marathon of curling,” Courtney said. “We trained as hard as we could off the ice knowing that it would be tough coming into this. We’re just doing everything we can to make sure we’re recovering properly, trying to get in for some treatments where we can and just at the end of the day hoping that no one gets any injuries. You go from zero to a thousand playing in the Scotties now.
“You’re going to be tired and sore midway through the Scotties, maybe a little bit more so this year, but we kind of just need to flip it to being excited to be here and the fact that we’re able to play in the middle of a pandemic is amazing. We’re just grateful for that.”
WFH: Watching from home
Team Jones lead Lisa Weagle said it’s like curling in a library with the Scotties Tournament of Hearts closed to the public and zero fans allowed in the stands.
Courtney, who is from Edmonton, isn’t exactly feeling the thrill of playing in her home province with her family and friends unable to make the trip down the highway to cheer her on in person. Like everything else during the pandemic though, all of that has shifted remotely.
“I’ve got lots of people texting and supporting that way,” she said. “I’ve had some nice phone calls from family, who would normally be in the stands. You’re just trying to make sure you’re touching base with the same people you would normally look to for support.
“It’s definitely weird playing with no crowd noise and it’s a long week, so sometimes that energy from the crowd is really helpful with that intensity and keeping the fatigue at bay. … We were the last game on the ice [Sunday] night and when Rachel settled into the hack to throw her double in the 10th end, you could hear a pin drop. It was so quiet.”
Courtney said she’s spending her downtime in her hotel room doing yoga, reading books, watching TV and the coverage of the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, however, she is also taking advantage of the alone time.
“It’s been pretty quiet but I’m trying to enjoy that too because I’ve got a toddler at home now,” Courtney said with a laugh. “It’s definitely a quieter way to go about a Scotties, especially not being able to see people you would normally see but we had a two-game day yesterday and it felt pretty normal.”
She added: “Yeah it would be nice to be able to go out and grab a coffee or something but at the end of the day the most important thing is our safety, so we’re just embracing all of the differences and appreciating it’s not all that different. When you’re playing in theory 12 to 15 games if you have a good week, you’re probably not doing much else other than eat, sleep and curl.”