Posted: Thursday February 16, 2006 12:59PM; Updated: Thursday February 16, 2006 5:19PM
U.S. men's curlers (from left) Joe Polo, Shawn Rojeski and John Shuster all hail from the small northern Minnesota town of Bemidji.
TURIN, Italy -- Bemidji, Minn., is best known as the birthplace of Paul Bunyan, a lumberjack so massive that he was delivered by not one, not two, but five storks. His sidekick, of course, was his blue ox, Babe, who snacked on 30 bales of hay at a time (wire and all) and was so large that other lumberjacks would dry their laundry on his horns.
Paul and Babe went around logging, eating prodigious amounts of food and creating Minnesota's 10,000 lakes with their gigantic footprints, thereby giving the state a slogan it could put on its license plates just as soon as cars were invented. A fine tale it is, but if any Bemidjians are looking to hang their town's rep on something a little less, oh, spectacular, they've now got another source of civic pride: they live in Curlingtown, USA.
Both the men's and women's Olympic teams come from the little hamlet, which lies 90 miles south of the Canadian border. The women's team is skipped by 24-year-old Cassie Johnson, who lives with her older sister, Jamie, who is the team's third, across the street from the team's other twentysomethings: Maureen Brunt, Courtney George and Jessica Schultz.
The men are skipped by Pete Fenson, the proprietor of Dave's Pizza on 15th Street, about a mile from the Bemidji Curling Club. (No, he's not curling under an assumed name. The place was called Dave's long before Pete bought it.) The alternate, 54-year-old Scott Baird, is from Bemidji, and none of the other three members lives far away. So why Bemidji?
"In Bemidji, curling has been handed down to kids from their parents and grandparents," said Johnson. "And it's just grown from there."
To say curling in Bemidji is a family affair is an understatement. The Johnson sisters were taught the game by their mom, Liz (who won the 1980 nationals while five months pregnant with Jamie), and their dad, Tim, who was a teammate on the '93 and '94 national champs of Baird and Fenson, who is now curling for a team coached by his father, Bob. Even the folks who aren't related know each other well -- Bemidji's population is only about 12,000. So the friends and families of the men's team have been turning up to support the girls, rocking the house with chants of "Jeepers, creepers, where'd you get those sweepers?"
Alas, the women didn't give their fans much to cheer about early in the nine-match round-robin tournament. They dropped their first two games to powers Norway and Canada, then were upset by Japan. They rebounded on Wednesday with a strong 8-3 win over Denmark before falling to Sweden, 5-4, Thursday on the last rock.
"It definitely helps to have a win now," Cassie said. "Hopefully we can keep that momentum going." If they can go 4-1 in their remaining matches, they should have a strong chance to get into the semifinals. It's not an impossible scenario; the team went 10-1 at the '05 Worlds, and only Sweden is a better team on paper.
The men, on the other hand, upset defending Olympic champ Norway in their opener, and with Thursday's 10-6 win over Sweden they stood at 3-2 -- with both losses coming on the final stone.
The most striking thing about the teams -- especially the women -- is how young and, well, uncurler-like they look. (Fenson is 37, Shawn Pojeski is 34 and Baird is the oldest U.S. Olympian at 54; the other two men, Joe Polo and John Shuster, are 23. Jamie Johnson is the oldest curler on the women's team at 25.) The girls have gotten plenty of attention and what Cassie called some "Internet crushes" -- curling, you see, isn't traditionally a sport associated with leggy blondes or tattoos like the Olympic rings and curling stones that Brunt and Schultz have on their lower backs -- but the girls are taking it all in stride.
"We're not cocky or anything," says Jamie, who adds that any pub they can bring the sport is good pub.
As for their ages, Tim Johnson feels that the youth of the women's team is a good thing. Unlike Fenson, who has pizzas to worry about (he feels his pies stack up favorably with what he's seen in Italy so far), and Baird, who sells insurance and has a family, the girls -- most of whom are finishing up school -- have less trouble finding time to dedicate to practice and training.
"None of them are married, they don't have permanent jobs," says Tim. "I think it's going to be tougher afterwards. Life is going to happen."
For now, though, the curling life is treating them well. They're in the hunt for Olympic medals and, win or lose, they'll go home heroes. On Thursday morning 45 fans -- including Fenson's mother -- showed up at the Bemidji Curling Club at 7 a.m. to watch the Sweden match, in which Fenson stole a deuce in the ninth end and converted a double takeout with his last shot in the tenth to emphatically finish a game the Americans were losing after seven ends.
Says Jeff Nelson, a member of the club who was on hand for the breakfast, "People take a big interest in a small community like this."