It was a dream that started when Chrissy Fink was a teenager at the Schenectady Curling Club in the 1990s and curling was first approved as a medal sport in the Winter Olympics. Now at age 30, Chrissy Haase has a solid chance of representing the United States at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Haase is in her fourth season as lead for Team Patti Lank, one of the top-seeded women’s rinks in the country heading into the U.S. Curling Association’s national championships, which this year double as the men’s and women’s Olympic Trials. The eight-day competition begins today in Broomfield, Colo., outside of Denver.
Team Lank is one of four women’s rinks which receive funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee for travel and bonspiel entry fees. (“They pay a good chunk, but we do pay quite a bit out of pocket,” Haase said.) It has become a regular power on the national scene, and two years ago represented the U.S. in the Karuizawa International Bonspiel in Japan.
Just based on the last three years at the nationals — two seconds and a third — Team Lank ranks among the favorites. But Haase and her teammates have taken it a step further with an intense regimen of off-ice training that began last May in preparation for one important week in Denver.
“After we finished second nationals, we knew we had year to prep for trials,” said Haase a 5-foot-2, 120-pound Schenectady native. “I said to myself, I need to do everything I can to get myself ready.”
That meant cutting back to part time in her job as a physical therapist at Sunnyview Hospital since last spring, and as the wife of Eric Haase (also a curler), putting family plans on hold.
It meant traveling many weekends from September to December to compete in cashspiels (open tournaments with prize money) throughout Canada and the Midwest in search of the best competition.
And even after the team completed a 12-week off-ice conditioning program set up by Scott Higgins, a former member of the U.S. ski team staff who now works with the curling organization, it also meant working with a personal trainer at Best Fitness in Schenectady the last six months.
Haase also does cardio and yoga on her own, in addition to practicing her shots on the ice.
“I decided this is what I wanted, to try for the Olympics,” she said. “Once this is over, I will take some time for myself and my family. I’ve had to put those plans on hold.”
Haase, who mainly works with patients with neurological injuries such as brain injuries, strokes, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries at Sunnyview, is grateful to her employer for allowing her to take time off to compete during a six-month season each year.
“They have been very supportive,” Haase said. “My co-workers have been very good to me. They threw me a surprise party on Monday before I left.”
The daughter of former Schenectady Curling Club members Dave and Sue Fink, Chrissy was part of a curling family that included her uncle Rick and brother Bryan. She rose from the Little Rocks program to a teen standout, competing three times in the junior nationals. When her father was relocated to Franklin, Mass., during her high school years, Haase curled out of Broomstones Curling Club and later out of Utica Curling Club while attending Utica College, where she also earned her master’s degree.
It was there that Haase and former Utica CC standout Caitlin (Costello) Maroldo formed their own rink to compete in nationals and finished seventh in the trials for the 2006 Olympic Games.
But when Lank, a Saskatchewan native who won four U.S. national championships and earned a silver medal in the world championships, reorganized her rink following the 2004-05 season, she brought in Maroldo and Haase as the two and lead.
“Chrissy has been my best [lead] so far,” said Lank, a 43-year-old homemaker from Lewiston, outside of Buffalo. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone work so hard, or be so consistent.
“Right from the beginning, she was very coachable. Every time we try to work on something to improve the rink, she would just eat it up. She’s a good person to have.”
As lead, Haase’s main task is to deliver her team’s first two rocks in each end, but it’s much more than that.
“My role is setting the tone for the end, then as a sweeper to assist with vice and skip in making the perfect shot,” said Haase, who can confidently deliver a draw shot, a guard or the tricky weight needed to nudge aside an opponent’s guard without risking the violation of knocking it out of play. Haase also sweeps debris from the center line when she returns down ice from sweeping, and cleans off the bottom of her skip’s rocks to help assure accuracy.
Lank, Maroldo, a 33-year-old chemist living in Rochester, and Haase are curling together for the fourth season. One position, though, has changed. Erika Brown, a Wisconsin native who twice curled in the Olympics (once as a teenager in the 1988 Calgary Games, when curling was a demonstration sport), left the team after last season and formed her own rink.
Brown missed much of the season to have a child, and when she was ready to return before the nationals, Team Lank had a good chemistry going without her.
“We were happy where we were with our team,” Haase said. “So at the end of the season, she made her own team. There were no hard feelings. It was OK.”
The fourth member of Team Lank, Ann Swisshelm, 40, of Chicago, brings plenty of experience, having curled in the 2002 Olympics with Kari Erickson and on the 2003 world championship rink with Debbie McCormick. Swisshelm is no stranger to Haase; she’s also been the alternate and coach for Team Lank.
“We have a good team system,” said Haase. “We talk about what each person can do on ice to make things easier for another. We have a good way of communicating together, like when a person needs just a word to snap them [back into focus].”
Focus will be paramount over the next week, with a quality field of 10 rinks assembled for the trials. Team Lank will compete in nine round-robin matches through Wednesday, then the top four advance to the playoffs, beginning Thursday night.
“Every game in the round-robin is going to be a tough game,” said Haase. “This is strongest field of women across the board for the top 10. We’re going to try to keep the same level of play the whole way through.”
Under the Page Playoff system, the first- and second-place rinks from the round robin meet in one match, and the third and fourth in another. The winner of the 1-2 match goes straight to the championship game next Saturday, and the loser of the 1-2 match plays the 3-4 winner for the other berth.
Only the winning rink will represent the U.S. next year in Vancouver, as well as in the World Women’s Championships next month in Gangneung, Korea.
The team to beat is the Wisconsin-based rink skipped by McCormick, the only skip — man or woman — ever to win three national championships in a row, including an 8-6 decision over Team Lank a year ago at Hibbing, Minn.
Cassie (Johnson) Potter of Minneapolis skipped the 2006 U.S. Olympic team in Torino, Italy, and Brown’s new rink merits consideration, having finished with an 8-0 record in the first round of Olympic qualifying last month at Ardsley, defeating Team Lank along the way.
“It’s been a little different playing against Erika,” Haase said. “We played her team four times this season, beat them the first two times and at pretrials.”
The pretrials was a gathering of four men’s teams and four women’s teams last week in Green Bay, Wis., where Team Lank defeated McCormick, Brown and Aileen Sormunen of Duluth, Minn., to get a big boost of confidence heading into Denver.
“It definitely made us feel good going into this weekend,” Haase said. “We’re playing well, and feel we’re peaking at the right time. We put in a lot of effort on off-ice training, and it has really helped a lot.”
“I know we’re going to win,” said Lank from a mountain cabin outside of Denver, where the team arrived early in the week to get acclimated at an even higher elevation. “Consistency and confidence is going to put the winner over the top.”
The first match for Team Lank is at 6 p.m. (EST) today against Gillian Gervais of Bismarck, N.D. Alternating with men’s draws, there will be two matches each day through Wednesday at the Broomfield Event Center. On Tuesday, Lank plays both Potter and McCormick.
“We’re pretty happy with the way the draw panned out,” said Haase. “We start out with a couple lower seeds, play Cassie and Debbie the same day, then finish off well.”
Clearly, this is no normal trip to the nationals, like in 2007 at Utica, where Team Lank finished third, or in 2006 at Bemidji, Minn., which resulted in a silver.
“There is absolutely more pressure,” said Lank, “not only going to the worlds, but the Olympics is a dream.”
Universal Sports will air 12 hours live from the Olympic Trials, including the semifinals and finals. Live webstreaming will also be available on www.universalsports.com. Live scoring from the event will be available at www.usacurl.org/curlingrocks.
TEAM LANK’S SCHEDULE
(All times EST)
Today — vs. Gillian Gervais (Bismarck, N.D.), 6 p.m.
Sunday — vs. Amy Wright (Duluth, Minn), 10 a.m.; vs. Aileen Sormunen (Duluth, Minn.), 6 p.m.
Monday — vs. Erika Brown (Oakville, Ontario), 10 a.m.; vs. Charissa Lin, (New Haven, Conn,) 6 p.m.
Tuesday — vs. Cassie Potter (Minneapolis), noon; vs. Debbie McCormick (Rio, Wis.), 9 p.m.
Wednesday — vs. Norma O’Leary (Silver Bay, Minn.), 2 p.m.; vs. Cristin Clark (Seattle), 10 p.m.
Thursday — Tiebreakers, if needed,
2 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Page Playoffs, 10 p.m.
Friday — Semifinals, 6 p.m.
Saturday — Finals noon.