Australia’s first Olympic curlers swap sunshine for sweeping
SYDNEY (AP) — In a sunburned country, with no ice to call their own, Australian curlers Tahli Gill and Dean Hewitt were left to practice their sport’s legendary sweeping in the most ironic of places: Their kitchens.
While sweeping their tiled floors was a less-than-ideal substitute for sweeping the painstakingly prepared ice of a curling rink, the duo still managed to do what no other Australian curler ever has: Snag a spot at the Olympics. Their historic bid for an Olympic medal in the sport’s mixed doubles event comes despite being the only curlers competing in Beijing without a designated curling rink in their home country.
“Oh my god, I’m shaking so much,” a weeping Gill told her tearful teammate as they embraced after winning the Olympic qualification tournament in December. “I can’t believe we did it.”
Their shock at becoming Australia’s first curlers to qualify for an Olympics has been shared by many who typically associate Australian athletes with surfing, not sweeping. Yet curling is a sport famed for its focus on friendship and fairness, ideals important within Australian culture. It is also a sport in which the winners and losers traditionally gather for a post-game drink — and what could be more Australian than that?
“It’s camaraderie, it’s mateship, it’s the balance of skill and strategy … but to be honest, it’s a lot of fun,” says Australian Curling Federation President Kim Forge. “And Australians value the fun factor, which curling has in bounds.”
Gill, 22, and Hewitt, 27, were born into a life of brooms, following their parents into the game from an early age. Gill’s mother first became enamored with the sport after watching Olympic curling on TV from the family’s home in subtropical Brisbane. She linked up with some Canadian expats, started a local club and began bringing Gill with her to matches around the world. When Gill turned 11, her mother started letting her play, too.
“It’s pretty cool that she saw it on the Olympics and now I get to go and represent Australia at the Olympics,” Gill says.
Like many in the tiny Australian curling community, Hewitt has ties to Canada, the epicenter of curling culture. His mother is a Canadian curler who taught her Australian husband, Stephen Hewitt, how to play. Stephen ended up playing in the 1992 Albertville Games when curling was just a demonstration sport (it wasn’t added to the official Olympic program until 1998.) By age 5, Dean was sliding down the ice, and later began competing alongside his parents at world championship games.
“The atmosphere is just electric,” Hewitt says. “One of my goals was to follow in their footsteps.”
But Hewitt’s goals soon grew loftier: He wanted to play in the Olympics. Four years ago, he called Gill and asked if she would team up with him in a bid to make it to the Games. She quickly said yes.
Their first time training together was in 2018 in New Zealand, which — because it has a dedicated curling rink — hosts Australia’s national championships. They gained momentum as they spent more time training and competing overseas.
With their homes 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) apart, the duo grew accustomed to practicing separately. Apart from their kitchen floor sweeping drills, they each trained once a week at local rinks used by hockey players and ice skaters. The choppy ice is nothing like curling ice, which is carefully smoothed and then sprayed with water that freezes into tiny pebbles. Those pebbles are a crucial part of what makes the stone curl. Without them, curlers are basically throwing blind.
“You may as well close your eyes,” laughs Hewitt.
The pair also had to juggle jobs and schooling around their training. Hewitt is an exercise physiologist who also works in retail and teaches curling on the weekends. Gill is studying to be a primary school teacher, and quit her job at a gelato shop to focus on school and the sport she loves.
Mastering the game’s strategy is crucial, so the team regularly talked tactics over Zoom with their coach, Canadian mixed doubles gold medalist John Morris.
“I feel like Aussies and Canadians are kindred spirits,” says Morris. “We don’t take life too seriously, we have a lot of fun together.”
In a classic example of curling’s convivial nature, Gill and Hewitt will be competing against Morris and his teammate, Rachel Homan, in Beijing. Their relationship also exemplifies the sport’s strong family ties; Morris’ father used to coach Hewitt’s father.
“It’s how we roll,” Hewitt says of their coach-slash-opponent pairing. “We’re very lucky to have him as our coach and we’re prepared to play him and see how we go.”
Morris’ joy over qualifying for the Games was tempered by his heartbreak over having to compete against his own players. In recent weeks, Morris and Homan have practiced against Gill and Hewitt to prepare for their battle in Beijing. But Morris says his ultimate loyalty lies with his home country.
“As soon as we’re on that plane, we’re wearing the Canadian colors and they’re wearing the Australian colors,” he says. “However, I will be cheering for them every game that we’re not playing against them.”
Like most athletes training for the Olympics, the coronavirus pandemic complicated everything. Hewitt and Gill’s plans to spend six months training in Canada ahead of the world championships were scuttled by border closures. Living in Melbourne, which spent more time in lockdown than any city in the world, Hewitt wasn’t able to get on the ice for over a year.
In March 2021, the Aussies finally made it to Sweden, where they spent two months training. In September, they flew to Canada after the border reopened to vaccinated foreigners, and settled into Morris’ town of Canmore, Alberta. And that’s where the duo has stayed, sharing a townhouse, training in an empty rink and getting their groceries delivered in a bid to avoid the coronavirus ahead of the Games.
Due to Beijing’s ban on overseas spectators, their parents won’t be able to cheer them on in person, but they’ll be watching on TV. Gill’s parents have taken time off work just to watch her play.
“Dean and Tahli know more about the game and strategy than almost any team I’ve ever met,” Morris says. “I really do believe that they could medal.”
The Australians hope their Olympic bid will drum up interest in the sport among their fellow Aussies, and lead to a dedicated curling rink in their home country. Hewitt believes fun-loving Australians may embrace the sport once they learn more about it, although Morris warns that could come with one downside.
“It might be a high energy bill to keep all that ice frozen year-round,” Morris says with a laugh.
Gill and Hewitt’s dreams were nearly shattered after Gill tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival at Beijing’s airport, forcing them into isolation for two days. But on Monday, the Australian Olympic Committee confirmed Gill had subsequently returned two negative tests, and would continue preparing for the Games as planned.
The pair say they’d be thrilled just to finish in the top half of competitors. But as the kitchen floor-sweeping duo from Down Under, they know they’ve made history just by being there.
“So far, I’ve kept it pretty cool. I know I’ll have a freak-out at one point,” Gill says. “It’s something we’ve been working literally our whole lives for.”