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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

#PyeongChang2018 MD Preview

#BetweenTheRings: Mixed Doubles Debut
Curling adds the new discipline to the Olympic roster in Korea


Welcome back into our lives Olympic Games!  It has been just under two years since the world united under the Olympic rings and this week the Olympic spirit will reign supreme once again when the 2018 Winter Olympics hit the global viewership from PyeongChang, South Korea.

The Opening Ceremonies are slated for Friday February 9 at the PyeongChang Olympic Stadium, a temporary 35,000 seat pentagonal design structure.  But while the official start of the games will be when the Olympic flame is lit at Olympic Stadium, the actual competition will begin a day earlier.

The 2018 Winter Olympics will kick-off with the welcoming of a new Olympic discipline added to the roster: Mixed Doubles Curling!

The discipline of mixed doubles curling is really still in its infancy stage in the world of sport.  2018 will mark its true introduction to the eyes of the world when it hits the ice in PyeongChang.  But this will not be the first world appearance.  Mixed doubles has held a world championship since 2008.  It is sort of remarkable that the sport comes off celebrating its 10th World Championship in 2017 only to gear up for its first Olympic invite in 2018.

But before we offer some hack weight takeouts on what to expect in PyeongChang, lets quickly discuss the difference in play/rules of mixed doubles vs team curling.  The quick and dirty of the discipline:
  • Mixed doubles is for teams of two players, one male and no female, with no alternate players
  • The game is played on the same sheet of ice as other curling disciplines
  • Teams have only 6 stones each (instead of 8) and one stone from each team is prepositioned on the centre line before each end of play begins.  A perfect end is a score of 6!
  • Player One delivers first and last stone while Player Two delivers second, third and fourth.  The two players may swap positions from Player One to Player Two from one end to the next.
  • Sweeping can be done by both players.
  • The "skip" or Player One does not need to stand behind the hog line at the scoring end.  Teams can select to have a sweeper instead of a "skip".
  • Each team receives 22 minutes of thinking time and games are scheduled for 8 ends.
  • Team may call a #PowerPlay once per game (but only when the team has hammer), meaning pre-placed stones will be moved out to one of the sides and placed as a corner guard and a stone behind it, with the back of the stone against the tee line.
  • The first take-out is allowed with the fourth stone played each end.
  • Before fourth stone, teams are not allowed to hit either their opposition or their own stones out of play.
  • If an end is blanked, the team that delivered first stone will have decision on pre-determined rock placement the next end.
The biggest pro perhaps for the sport is the fast-paced, high scoring aspect of each game.  22 minutes of thinking time is not a lot.  Only 6 stones in play and the rule of no take-out until the fourth stone is played means each end can become messy and the opportunity to score multiple points is quite high.  It will not be uncommon to see 3, 4 or 5 point ends in PyeongChang.  A perfect end is 6 points scored and while the perfect ender in team curling (8 points) is very rare it is not uncommon to see a few 6 point ends creep up on the scoreboard every now and again.  It certainly could happen during the Olympic debut...which may actually be more exciting from a new fan perspective to see.

The theme of mixed doubles really is #NoLeadIsSafe.  As mentioned, with many rocks in play and the opportunity to score multiple points and/or steal each end, scores can be high and a team could race out to a quick 5 or 6 point lead early and still suffer the loss by the time the final rock comes to rest in the house.  Momentum swings will be key.  The timing of calling a #PowerPlay will be key.  Do you make the Power Play call when you are done a few points near the end of the game with hammer and hope to generate some offense and get back into the game?  We see this quite often with the experience European teams.  They will often make the Power Play call in end 5 or 6 looking to generate the big end to gain a lead and momentum coming down the home stretch.  Or do you make the Power Play call hoping to play a more defensive end and protect a lead when you have it, say making the call in end 7 or 8.  The debate on when and strategy behind the decision rages on and it will be an added element to pay attention to during the Olympic competition.

With no Olympic history to draw upon, how will people know who are the big players in the discipline?  Which are the nations expected to challenge for the podium?  What is the history here?  The only stats we can really draw over the past 10 years are the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship results.  Here is a quick summary:

  • #HoppSchwiiz - No nation has excelled in this element of the sport like Switzerland.  In the 10 year history of the world championship they have claimed gold 6 times, including the most recent championship in 2017.  The same 2017 victorious duo will be competing in this Olympic debut.
  • Only three nations have claimed the top of the podium in 10 years of world championship results.  As mentioned Switzerland leads the way with 6 while Russia and Hungary follow behind with 2 gold medal wins apiece.  Russia's most recent title victory came in 2016 while Hungary last won the title in 2015.  Russia's 2016 champs will be competing in PyeongChang while Hungary failed to qualify.
  • Overall medal table results show, again, Switzerland leading the way with 6 overall medals (all gold of course).  Sweden is next with 5 medals (including 4 straight silver medal finishes from 2012-2015).  Hungary, Russia and China are next with 3 total medals to round out the Top 5.  Canada, often declared the dominant curling nation, has collected 2 medals (including last year's silver medal) and Finand, New Zealand (both silver), Austria, Czech Republic, France, Norway, Spain and USA (all bronze) have found the podium once.
  • #growthesport - While the international history of the discipline may be in infancy stage, the growth movement of mixed doubles around the world is taking off at a rapid pace....perhaps faster than a Jason Gunnlaugson take out!  When the first world championships took place in 2008 in Finland 24 nations entered the competition.  Not a bad start for the first world championship right?  By the time 2017 rolled around last year, a record 39 nations sent a delegation to compete for the world title.  And sure we see traditional curling powers like Canada, USA, Sweden, Scotland and Switzerland compete but we also saw the inclusion of non-traditional curling nations like Latvia, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Ireland, Israel and Estonia to name a few.  We also see some non-traditional winter sport nations competing like Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and Spain.

The #growthesport movement is truly the strongest among the mixed doubles discipline in the sport of curling.  The movement is not only felt in traditional curling nations where we are seeing some of the top curling athletes play a dual threat role in competing in team and mixed doubles now but also we are seeing more of these non-traditional curling nations pick up the sport and see an increased growth back home.  For some this has also led to increase funding from their national sports governing body and/or the build of a dedicated curling facility.  For more information on the #growthesport movement in mixed doubles curling, please check out the #TwineTime blog post on the topic HERE, including interviews with some of the top athletes from traditional and non-traditional curling nations.

But enough of the history lesson and backstory on mixed doubles.  Lets turn our attention to the main stage of this blog post: The 2018 Winter Olympics!!

Slip on that slider, settle in the hack, take a deep breath.....here we go!


Mixed Doubles Curling

Gangneung Curling Centre

Gangneung, South Korea

Competition Schedule: February 8 - 13, 2018

2014 Champion: New Event

Format: 8 team RR with Top 4 advancing to playoffs with 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 SF matches.

Favourites


Olympic Athletes from Russia (Anastasia Bryzgalova/Alexander Krushelnitskiy) - Heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics Russian athletes are under intense scrutiny....and for obvious reasons.  But once it was decided clean Russian athletes could compete under the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) banner, this mixed doubles curling team must have let out a huge sigh of relief.  They are the real deal and not just a medal contender but a serious gold medal threat.  This duo won the 2016 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship title, their first year competing at the world level together.  At last year's championship in Lethbridge, AB they finished the RR at 5-1 but drew a tough R1 playoff opponent, fellow Olympic fav China and slipped down to a 9th place disappointing finish.  The team is having a strong lead-up season entering the Olympic Games though.  On the newly formed mixed doubles tour, this team has collected 3 titles plus have reached 2 other finals.  They are coming in hot...and will have something to prove representing their motherland under the cloud of Olympic scrutiny.

China (Wang Rui/Ba Dexin) - You would be hard pressed to find a more consistent duo on the mixed doubles circuit the past two years than the Chinese team of Wang/Ba.  This team won a silver medal at the 2016 world championship and won a bronze medal at the 2017 world championship.  The duo has also collected 2 mixed doubles tour titles this season, most recently at the Stu Sells event mid-January.  The wild card advantage as well for this team could be Ba, having already competed on the Olympic stage in 2014 with the Chinese men's team (4th place finish).  Wang has also competed at 3 Women's World Championships, most recently last season as vice for Bingyu Wang (also an Olympian this season).  She had to make the choice to not compete with Wang in the women's field this year and is placing all her eggs in this competition basket.  This team should also have strong fan support in the crowd as China fans are known to travel to support their athletes and Korea is not too far away.

Watch Out For

Switzerland (Jenny Perret/Martin Rios) - Welcome the defending world champions to the field!  One can never discount a current world champion in any Olympic field and this Swiss duo is no exception.  At last year's world championship this team went a perfect 6-0 in the RR and ran the undefeated streak to 10 straight in claiming the gold medal.  Plus, can you ever discount a Switzerland team in mixed doubles?  Remember this is the dominant nation in the discipline, collecting 6 of the 10 world championships.  Also worth mentioned, Switzerland failed to make any Olympic qualification points at the 2016 world championship meaning anything short of a gold medal finish for this team at the 2017 championships meant they may not even have been in this field.  They curled under pressure then so this pressure may not get to them as much, even as Olympic rookies.  This season on tour the team has reached 3 championship finals but has failed to take home the title each time.  Worth mentioning, two of those final losses were to their Russian (I mean OAR) rivals competing here.  The last tour event before arriving in PyeongChang they did reach the final in Sweden coming up short against another strong duo, Scotland's Gina Atiken/Bruce Mouat.  Dangerous medal threat here.

Canada (Kaitlyn Lawes/John Morris) - Now of course if you are not fully familiar with the mixed doubles format and/or not super familiar with the sport of curling you would right away assume Canada to be the gold medal favourite.  And, given the reps from Canada, you would make a strong case.  Kaitlyn Lawes won gold in 2014 with her women's team (skipped by Jennifer Jones).  John Morris is also an Olympic gold medal winner (2010 - Kevin Martin).  They are the most decorated athletes in the field and the only other Olympic gold medal winners.  Their resume will speak for themselves.  BUT, how are they in the mixed doubles field?  Yes, they did defeat a tough field to become #TeamCanada but remember neither of them have been playing with one another prior to entering the event.  In 2017, Morris was competed with Rachel Homan (having reached the Canadian final) and Lawes was competing with Ryan Fry.  Yes these two are qualified and have meshed well as a team.  They will be a medal threat without question.  But they will be competing against teams who have been playing together for years.  It will be interesting to see if strongest individual curling resumes can trump tough, familiarity teams.

#TeamUpset

USA (Rebecca Hamilton/Matt Hamilton) - The brother/sister duo is going to be fun to watch, win or lose.  Both of these athletes pack a ton of personality and always seem to have fun on the ice.  I was in Lethbridge watching them compete at the world championship last season and they really seemed to be enjoying playing with one another, even under the stress of needing a high result to just qualify their nation into this field.  The Hamilton's accomplished just that with a 7-0 RR record but were upset in R1 of the playoffs by a fellow Olympic competitor (Finland) and finished in 10th place.  Both Becca and Matt are also the only competitors in the field who will also be competing with their men's and women's teams (Team Shuster, Team Roth) meaning they could, in theory, compete every day for the full Olympic run.  Is there a risk of athlete burnout?  A strong start in mixed doubles, perhaps a playoff/medal push, could also help provide the motivation for their men's/women's teams success the following week.  Or, I suppose, the opposite effect could come into play too.  Either way, the promotion of the sport in the US from Becca and Matt have been amazing and they are really helping to #growthesport.  I mean have you seen the #DoTheCurl video?


Norway (Kristin Skaslien/Magnus Nedregotten) - Outside Switzerland, this Norway duo entered last year's world championship knowing anything outside a Top 5 finish (plus needing some help) meant they probably were not going to be PyeongChang-bound.  Look what happened!  Skaslien/Nedregotten were perhaps Lucky in Lethbridge when they finished in 5th place overall and saw main rival Scotland finish 11th and the Czech Republic just miss the podium (they finished 4th).  They were a huge dark horse in Lethbridge and should carry forward the #TeamUpset franchise tag in PyeongChang.  But they may just have the last laugh as the ultimate dark horse team in this field!  They have represented Norway at every mixed doubles world championship since 2013, including a bronze medal win in 2015 and a 4th place finish in 2013.  They have the most team experience in the field.  And the 2017/18 curling season has been successful, winning two tour titles.  If you are cheering for a #TeamUpset to set the stage for the Winter Olympics in a debut discipline, keep your eyes on Team Norway.

The Field

Finland (Oona Kauste/Tomi Rantamaki) - In speaking of Switzerland and Norway doing exactly what was needed to bump their nation from outside the sheet and into the house for this Olympic field, Finland did just enough at the 2017 world championship to earn the final spot.  They finished 7th in back to back years, earning enough points (and also thanking Scotland for their disappointing finish in 2017).  But don't think this team is just happy to be here either.  They could surprise a few of the contenders above.  With only an 8 team field, every game is almost do or die and this Finnish duo will play a huge part in the playoff hunt.  Either they will shock the world with a deep run here or they will be the team to ruin the Olympic playoff dreams for one (or more) of their competitors.  They are a dangerous team playing with less expectations than many of their opposition and sometimes the role of spoiler just happens to walk away with an Olympic medal!

Korea (Jang Hye-ji/Lee Ki-jeong) - When the mixed doubles discipline was added to the 2018 Winter Olympics field, everyone quickly assumed the home nation representative would be the "bingo" square in the field.  At the 2016 world championships, when we first saw this team compete, they put together a solid 4-2 RR record but lost their R1 playoff match and finished outside the Top 12.  Last year, they came into the championship with little momentum and little expectation....surprise...they finished 7-0 in the RR (including defeating China in their RR game) and were seeded #1 entering the playoffs.  Unfortunately in the QF rematch, Korea would succumb to their PAC-rivals.  They would end up with a 6th place finish (losing the 5th place match vs. their Norway competitors).  This is a strong team and they will have the home nation support cheering them on to kick off the 2018 Winter Olympics.  Can they use the fan support to push them towards a few W's and a playoff run or will the pressure get to them against a more experienced field?  Tough call....


Final Standings:  1. OAR  2. China  3. Switzerland  4. Norway  5. Canada  6. USA  7. Finland  8. Korea

Qualifiers: OAR, China, Switzerland, Norway


Semifinals

OAR def. Norway
China def. Switzerland


Bronze Medal

Switzerland def. Norway


#PyeongChang2018 GOLD MEDAL

OAR (Bryzgalova/Krushelnitskiy) def. China (Wang/Ba)




#TwineTime Medal Picks

Gold -  OAR
Silver -  China
Bronze -  Switzerland


The 2018 Winter Olympics have arrived and are underway....even before the official flame is lit in PyeongChang.  Don't forget, there is still time to enter the #TwineTime Winter Olympics 50/50 Pool, raising funds for Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association.  Full details and the entry form can be found HERE.

#StayTuned curling AND Olympic fans as more #PyeongChang2018 previews will be sliding into your house throughout the duration of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Of course with the Olympic craze hitting everything from the curling sheet to the snowy slopes to hockey arena to skating oval and everywhere in between, the #TwineTime Poll needed to be updated.  For our Olympic-themed poll, the question is "Can one nation sweep the curling podium in PyeongChang?"  Canada, Switzerland, USA and Korea will field teams in all 3 curling disciplines.  Can any of these nations dominate the field and take home all 3 gold medals?  Head over to the #TwineTime Home Page and VOTE NOW!!!

The last #TwineTime poll proved to be a closely contested race.  When asked "What is the curling story of 2017?" Team Gushue rolling through their competition and collecting their 1st Brier and World Championship collected 38% of the vote.  Homan's similar domination came in second in 27% while the Roar of the Rings Canadian Olympic Curling Trials collected 25%.  Team Edin's strong season could not overcome the Canadian pride, collecting 8% of the votes.

Enjoy.....