Tense qualification process prepares teams for PyeongChang 2018

  • United States' Matt and Becca Hamilton Photo: © WCF / Richard Gray

The final two days of play at the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship 2017 in Lethbridge, Canada were the make or break points for many Olympic dreams. Not only did the top teams have a chance at winning a medal at the world championship, but they had fate in their own hands to qualify for the Olympic Winter Games.

In an already high-pressure situation, teams from United States, Norway and Finland came through with victories when they needed to most. Even Korea, who previously received their berth to the Games as hosts, went through the round-robin undefeated and finished sixth overall. With several teams in the mix fighting for Olympic points, each and every shot grew even more important.

As teams walked off the ice after their final game in Lethbridge, some players were aware that their win secured their Member Association’s berth, and some were unsure where they stood on the point table. The question asked all day was simply, “who made it?”

For Matt and Becca Hamilton of United States, losing their first game in the play-offs to Finland 6-5 meant it was time to pull up their socks and go to work. They needed to win two more games to ensure the United States would receive a spot in the inaugural mixed doubles tournament at the Olympics. Heads down, they pulled out an 11-0 win over Hungary – who were represented by the 2013 and 2015 mixed doubles world champions none-the-less – then they defeated Italy 7-4, which secured United States that coveted place at the Games.

The fun didn’t stop there for the brother and sister duo. In November 2017, both Matt and Becca won the Unites States Olympic curling trials with their respective four person teams.

Then, just weeks later, they were on the ice again, but this time for the Unites States mixed doubles trials. Facing teammates John Shuster and Cory Christensen in the final game, the siblings pulled off the win 6-5. Matt, second for team John Shuster, and Becca, lead for team Nina Roth, each will be making history as double Olympians at this year’s Games.

Becca was named USA Curling Female Athlete of the Year for 2017 and has previous experience playing in two World Women’s Curling Championships. Matt won a bronze medal with Shuster at the World Men’s Curling Championship 2016 in Basel, Switzerland and competed in the 2015 and 2017 world championships with strong top half finishes.

Another competitor from the World Men’s Curling Championship 2017, Magnus Nedregotten of Norway, will also be joining the Hamiltons at the Games. Playing second for Steffen Walstad at the world men’s, his team defeated Thomas Ulsrud in a best-of-three series after already having won the national championship. Aside from his men’s team, Magnus also brought back a bronze medal from the World Junior Curling Championships 2011 and a gold medal at the 2015 Winter Universiade Games. Alongside Magnus is long-time partner Kristin Moen Skaslien [pictured above, © WCF / Richard Gray]. In 2015, she skipped Norway at the World Women’s Curling Championship in Sapparo, Japan and has ten European championship appearances to her name.

With five consecutive World Mixed Doubles Championship showings together, the two are well seasoned in the new discipline. Since 2013, the Norwegians have placed no lower than ninth, giving them invaluable experience heading into the Olympics. Kristin and Magnus qualified in Lethbridge after an emotional must-win game over Finland, won by 6-4.

Ramping up to PyeongChang, the pair won gold in November at the 2017 WCT International Mixed Doubles in Sochi, defeating Russia’s Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii, 8-7 in an extra end.
Finland earned their berth to the Games in a similar dramatic fashion as Norway. Facing United States in the first round of play-offs at the World Mixed Doubles Championship, Oona Kauste and Tomi Rantamaki knew they had to win in order keep their Olympic dreams alive. The door opened against United States when Becca Hamilton’s last stone slid inches too far in the eighth end, giving Finland a steal of one point to force an extra end. With Oona’s final stone, she played her shot precisely locked onto the button – forcing United States into a difficult run-back. Finland stole the win and secured their Olympic berth with a final victory over Latvia.

“Olympic Games have been a huge dream for me since I was a kid and now it will happen – it's amazing! It's an honour to represent Finland in the first ever Olympic mixed doubles curling,” said Kauste. “We won the Finnish nationals two years in a row and got a right to represent Finland in the worlds. As we were the only team earning Olympic points for Finland we were automatically selected to the Olympic team.”

The Olympics are more than simply competition for the athletes. It’s the Olympic spirit that Kauste can’t wait to experience. “These are my first Olympics so it will be amazing to see this biggest competition stage. I'm mostly waiting for the Olympic atmosphere with all the athletes and the exciting games that are ahead. We will also have few days after our games are over to watch other sports.”
Hosts Korea, are just as excited to feel that Olympic energy come to their country. Hyeji Jang and Kijeong Lee [pictured above, © WCF / Céline Stucki] were selected to become the mixed doubles team to represent Korea on home soil prior to their sixth-place finish in Lethbridge. The two went through round-robin play untouched at 7-0 before falling 8-2 against China in the quarter-finals.

Male player Kijeong Lee will be joining his twin brother Ki-bok Lee in PyeongChang, who is lead for the men’s team. The twins made history in March 2017, winning the first ever world junior gold medal for their Member Association. The match-up was played in the Gangneung Curling Centre – the same venue where Kijeong and Hyeji will battle for gold medals next month.

“The most exciting thing is I will be the first Korean in the Olympics in mixed doubles. I would love to participate in the Winter Games in the future as much as I can, but I am sure this Winter Games in Korea probably will be the last in Korea. So, I would love to achieve my goals successfully this chance,” said Kijeong.

His partner Kyeji feels the same excitement, “It’s my first Olympics and first Winter Games in Korea so it’s really special for me that I am going to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Games. I am really excited that mixed doubles is going to start early so I will pay attention to play, finish and will cheer for the men’s and women’s team.”

With Olympic dreams having been made in getting to PyeongChang and the eight-team mixed doubles curling tournament that will set the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 in motion there is no doubt it will be a highly entertaining event.

The mixed doubles tournament at the Games will be played in the Gangneung Curling Centre between Thursday 8 February – the day before the official Olympic opening ceremony – until Tuesday 13 February.

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