RED BAY, NL – With the Winter Olympics underway, eyes across the globe have been glued to the sport of curling.
Now, a young curler from the Town of Red Bay in the Labrador Straits is finding success in the game.
Stephanie Nadeau, 22, is curling as the lead for the Memorial University Sea-Hawks women's varsity team, and she and her teammates have qualified to play on a national stage.
The Sea-Hawks was recently one of two women's teams from the Atlantic region to qualify for the U Sports Curling Championships.
The team made the event after squaring off against six other teams from Atlantic Canada in a regional tournament in Fredericton, New Brunswick Feb. 8-11
Nadeau was thrilled with the result and the opportunity.
“I'm very proud to be a part of this team, I think we did awesome,” she told the Northern Pen. “I feel so great knowing that we get to go to nationals.”
The tournament will be held in Leduc, Alberta March 24-28.
Learning to play
At age 17, Nadeau started curling at an older age than most beginners.
Growing up, her hometown and surrounding area didn't have the equipment or recreational facilities to accommodate training and practice.
Nadeau never held a curling rock or broom until she left home to attend Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook.
However, she always had a passion for the sport. She grew up watching curling with her parents and has been a fan since childhood.
“My mom's a big curling fan and she got me into it at a young age,” said Nadeau. “I've been watching it ever since I was probably nine or 10.”
“If you know anything about curling, it's a lot about strategy as well,” Nadeau’s mother Carol told the Northern Pen. “At a very early age, she could understand the game and know what was happening.”
There was a learning curve when it came to the physical side. Along with sweeping, there's also a lot of balance and coordination required when coming out of the hack – delivering the rock.
Nevertheless, Nadeau feels she picked up on it “pretty quickly.”
Even though other curlers her age have been playing since they were children, Nadeau doesn't believe starting out at an older age has been a disadvantage.
She feels comfortable in her role as lead and says she's had the opportunity to learn the sport from a lot of different people over the last five years.
By chance, she met curler and provincial tankard champion Greg Smith when she moved to St. John's four years ago.
She had been curling in Corner Brook, but Smith asked her to play competitively with him at the Remax Centre Curling Cub in St. John's.
“He's helped me every year and I've improved,” she said.
And she's learned from others, including many new friends at the club as well.
Memorial Sea-Hawks coach Wallace Gregory has also helped her development as a player.
And, of course, Nadeau wouldn't be where she is without the support of her parents, who she wished to thank.
“They know how much I love the sport and they've supported me curling ever since I wanted to actually try it,” she said. “They've been nothing but supportive and I think they're very proud.”
Qualifying for nationals
Last year, Nadeau found herself participating in the Atlantic University Sports Curling Championship for Memorial University for the first time.
The team finished winless at that event, but this year's tournament went very differently.
At regionals in Fredericton this month, every team played each other in the round robin first. And after those six games, the Sea-Hawks had a solid 3-3 – good enough to make the semi-finals.
A big obstacle stood in their way as they squared off against the defending champions from Dalhousie University – a team that had also defeated them in the round robin.
Despite the strong competition, the Sea-Hawks were up to the task.
The match was a close and tense affair. The Sea-Hawks were down 7-5 going into the eighth end. They grabbed two points and managed a steal of one in the ninth to pull off the victory.
The win was huge. Memorial, as one of the top two teams in the tournament, had officially qualified for the nationals.
“We said if we could just improve on that performance last year, we would be happy,” said Nadeau. “If we could just get one win, we would be content. But we did even better than that. We played really well all week and it paid off in the end.”
Whatever happened in the finals would have been icing on the cake after qualifying.
However, one of their players was feeling unwell and had to drop out for the final game.
The team was down to three players, meaning there was just one sweeper. The disadvantaged team lost the match 6-2 to Mount Allison.
According to Nadeau, they approached the final just wanting to have fun. The most important thing was that they had qualified for nationals.
Nadeau, as one of two returnees along with the skip Rebecca Roberts, feels one big difference from last year is that her team spent more time preparing and playing together.
Often, she says, university teams are thrown together quickly, but their team this year was more prepared.
“Our team was kinda formed suddenly last year, whereas this year our team was more put together,” she said. “They were already formed, and they just included me. I have them to thank for that. But we've been good friends for the last year, so we've grown a lot together.”
Every player has their role on a curling squad and, as the lead, it was Nadeau's job to put up guards and to set up her teammates to make shots and score points.
“You need to have a feel for your draw weight – the amount of force you need to throw the rock,” she said. “I think that's most important.”
Looking ahead to nationals, Nadeau says the team is proud just to be able to play.
“It will be a wonderful experience and I know if we play our best, we're capable of doing really well,” she said. “But whatever happens, we'll be proud just to be there.”