Battle of generations in women's Olympic curling
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SOCHI, Russia -- The women's Olympic curling tournament is shaping up as more than just a fight for gold. It's also a battle of the generations.
In one corner is the modern face of curling, 23-year-old team captains Eve Muirhead of Britain and Anna Sidorova of Russia. Both are as much at home in a photo shoot or with sports psychologists as they are out on the ice.
In the other corner are battle-hardened veterans Jennifer Jones of Canada, Erika Brown of the United States and Mirjam Ott of Switzerland, rival skips aged 39 to 42 trying to keep pace with the youngsters and the growing professionalism in the sport.
The next two weeks will determine where the power lies in curling.
"There is a new generation coming through," said the 42-year-old Ott, who is taking time off from her bank job in Lenzburg, Switzerland, to compete in Sochi. "They curl and do nothing else anymore.
"We still have our jobs but we have the advantage of our experience -- you still have good chances even if you are a little bit older."
The contrast in generations will be most stark when the U.S. takes on Britain on Tuesday in their second games of the round-robin stage.
In Ann Swisshelm, the U.S. has a 45-year-old player who is the oldest member of her country's vast Olympic contingent. Britain's equivalent in the lead position -- the player who throws the team's first two stones -- will be Claire Hamilton, who is less than half Swisshelm's age.
"I love that we play a sport that's pretty forgiving to age," Swisshelm said. "I think very few sports in the world are like that."
Don't think for one minute, however, that Swisshelm and other members of the older generation aren't embracing curling's new era. Gone are the days of the 1980s when curlers used to fire up a cigarette during competition and could barely do a sit-up.
Muirhead, for example, spends as much time lifting weights as she does throwing rocks. As full-time athletes backed by government and lottery funding of 5 million pounds ($8.2 million) over an Olympic cycle, the British have sports psychologists and strength and conditioning coaches. They are current world champions and favorites for gold in Sochi.
"We make it as much a full-time job as we can," British curler Anna Sloan says.
The Americans may not have the same funding behind them, but they're intent on being just as professional.
"Don't underestimate the training we do," Swisshelm said. "Because they (Britain) put it out in a press release, don't think we aren't working really hard, too ... I think there is a misnomer about how hard curlers work."
During a year off from a Chicago-based charity foundation in the lead-up to Sochi, Swisshelm's average day has consisted of 45 minutes to an hour on the rowing machine, followed by strength training, agility work and speed training in a gym in her house. Then she heads to the local rink for a couple of hours on the ice.
"Our team has full-time jobs, families with children, so it's tough to bridge the gap," said Derek Brown, U.S. women's coach. "But they know that's what it takes to compete with full-time athletes. It's not an issue."
The older generation has had to adapt on the ice, too.
Most curlers accept that the standard of curling has greatly improved in recent years. Shot execution is better, there is more strategy and tactics and a wider range of shots often is required.
"They can throw really heavy take-outs these days," said Brown, who used to be performance director for British Curling. "Watching the Russians and Great Britain, they can throw a lot of weight and it can get them out of trouble.
"You could say that some of these younger teams are almost playing a men's style of game."
There's much more to curling, though, according to U.S. women's skip Erika Brown. Sochi will be her third Olympics, after her debut in the 1988 Calgary Games -- when curling was a demonstration sport -- and then the 1998 Nagano Games.
She has seen her sport change dramatically across three decades.
"Having 20 years of perspective on the Olympics and competitive curling, having that background to pull from when you are maybe going through a tough time, struggling, and the perspective of life in general, having family and children, gives you a different view," Brown said.
"I like to think that's all positives. I'm happy I'm 41."
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