Norway's curling team back and brighter than ever
Not many curling teams include a trip to New York City to debut a pair of pants on their pre-Olympic itinerary, but these sort of events have become normal for Thomas Ulsrud and the rest of the Norwegian curling team.
Ulsrud’s rink consists of Torger Neergard, Christoffer Svae, and Haavard Peterson. The team rose to fame at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics due to the social media phenomenon known as “The Pants.”
The buzz started after the team’s shirt and pants sponsors both sent them black clothes.
“For the Olympics we wanted something very traditional and Norwegian with red white and blue,” Svae said
Despite being tied to their shirt sponsor, their pants sponsor did allow them to pursue other options. One of the contenders was a pair of red Hugo Boss velour pants. To try them out, the team practiced their curling positions in the middle of the high fashion store in Oslo. Ultimately, they decided the pants were too warm and lacked the mobility to curl in.
“We were going to give up and one day I was just Googling ‘crazy colored pants’ and Loudmouth Golf was the first thing that came up,” Svae said.
He ordered one pair of the pants to test them out, and gave them a passing grade. The rest of the team were not so sure about the exuberant blue pants, but Svae did not give up and ordered four pairs to the hotel the team would be staying at in Vancouver.
Rules in Olympic curling dictate that the team and coach must have the same uniforms, but with only four pairs of the pants, the team needed two more for their alternate and coach immediately.
After a string of calls with a sales representative, Svae got in contact with Loudmouth’s CEO at the time, Larry Jackson. Jackson asked if the delivery was for some neighborhood curling tournament. Upon learning that he was speaking with the Norwegian Olympic Curling Team, the pants were delivered in two hours and Jackson himself flew up to Vancouver.
Even then, the team were still unsure about wearing the pants in their first Games.
The team had one of the few Olympic village apartments with a TV, which led to frequent visitors. When the Norwegian women’s ski cross team stopped by, Ulsrud’s rink got an outsider’s opinion on the pants and decided to use them in practice.
Throughout practice the team received bewildered looks from their opponents. But after it was over, the team went to speak with the media, a process that usually takes 15 to 20 minutes. On this day, Svae and Ulsrud faced the media for over two hours.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘I think we have something here,’” Svae said. “We knew we had crossed the point of no return and really can’t go back again.”
In addition to becoming an international sensation with an unofficial Facebook page boasting over 500,000 followers at its peak, the Norwegians ended up winning silver in 2010.
“People in Norway think we won that Olympics because of all of the media attention,” Svae said in an interview in lower Manhattan in late January.
The pants brought attention to not just the Norwegian curlers, but to the sport of curling as a whole.
“I think most curling teams even though they won’t say it like it,” Ulsrud said. “It has brought more attention around the world to curling and has gotten more money involved. The World Curling Federation (WCF) told me they got at least one or two more sponsors out of it.”
At one point the WCF was not going to let the team wear the pants. Traditionally, curling teams wear black pants. Svae made the comparison to golf when discussing the traditional and reserved unofficial dress code in curling.
But the Norwegians’ bold move has influenced others. While no team on the professional circuit has made the move to non-traditional pants, the exuberant colors have become a fixture in junior and amateur tournaments.
“I think people are afraid of stealing ‘our gig,’” Ulsrud said. “Sometime in the future I think once we aren't around, I think other teams will start.”
Heading to PyeongChang for their third Olympics, the Norwegians are excited for another shot. In Sochi, the team was not able to build on their success in their Olympic debut four years earlier and did not make it out of round-robin play.
“I think we can learn from Sochi,” the team’s skip said. “In Sochi we were much better prepared and were playing better, but got fifth place. I think shoulders were a little too high putting pressure on ourselves. We need to find that balance where you're having fun and playing hard—I think we are doing that now.
The road to the 2018 Games was more complicated than usual for Ulsrud’s team.
Another Norwegian team led by Steffen Walstad emerged as challengers for Norway's spot at the 2018 Games. Walstad ended Ulsrud’s run of Norwegian national championships and represented Norway at the 2017 World Curling Championship. Despite this, the veterans were able to hold on and earned their country’s Olympic berth in PyeongChang.
Due to the lack of popularity of curling in Norway, the two teams practice in the same club and are friendly despite being competitors. The relationship is similar to Ulsrud’s with 2002 Olympic gold medalist Pål Trulsen, whom they also shared a curling club with in the past.
The team is hoping their experience will help make up for a lack of financial benefits.
“We are definitely in the fight for a medal,” Ulsrud said. “This being our third Olympics, hopefully that helps us. First of all, we just have to squeeze into that semi-final after round-robin play. If after round-robin play we are top four I think we are looking pretty good.”
Despite heading to their third Olympics, the team members are still considered amateurs. All four have jobs outside of curling and train when they can throughout the year. While others may view the lack of time and funding as a negative, the team tries to stay positive.
“I think it could be an advantage sometimes, you always have the other thing to fall back on,” Svae said. “It’s not like the world is collapsing if you lose a curling game. You still have a life on the side and family commitments and work and study.”
Keeping things fun is important for Ulsrud and his team.
“For the Olympics they ask things like, ‘What's your favorite food?’ When they ask hobby, I say curling is my favorite hobby,” Neergard said.
Ultimately, ‘fun’ will be a major factor in deciding if the team decide go for their fourth Olympics in Beijing.
“We have decided to play this tournament and have a sit down afterwards,” Ulsrud said. “I think we all still feel it is so much fun to play. We are going to put in a lot of effort to see if we can keep going.”
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