Brush with greatness

Brad Jacobs’s rink struggled in Sochi’s early going, but gold was always the plan—the only plan.

It was the moment where Brad Jacobs took hold of his real self, tied him up and stuffed him in the trunk of a car. In the third end of Canada’s gold-medal curling match in Sochi, Great Britain’s skip, David Murdoch, muffed a double takeout, leaving the house wide open. Presented with the opportunity to score three, and all but seal the game, the 28-year-old from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., didn’t show a trace of emotion. He simply took a deep breath, sent his last rock sliding down the sheet. When it was halfway to its destination, he stopped watching. As the stone came to a gentle stop on the button, and the fans at the Ice Cube Curling Center started screaming, Team Canada’s skip was bent over, picking a bit of imaginary debris off the ice. He didn’t shout, or pump his fist, bang his broom, or even crack a grin. “There’s plenty of time to smile after you win,” he explained later.

To be honest, Canada’s eighth gold of the Sochi Olympics was never really in doubt. Jacobs’s rink took control of the game from the very beginning, scoring two in the first end and then cooly, clinically ripping their Scottish opponents apart. By the fourth end, Fleet Street hacks were fleeing the press tribunes for a better story. Viewers back home in the U.K. had taken to Twitter with the hashtags #Curlodden and #Curlaggedon. And well before Team Great Britain walked over to shake hands at the conclusion of the eighth, conceding defeat 9-3, somebody had already updated Wikipedia and named Jacobs, Ryan Fry and the brothers E.J. and Ryan Harnden Olympic champions.

Afterwards, Jacobs no longer felt compelled to keep it all in. But instead of joy, the dominant emotion was relief. “We’re relieved it’s over. Wearing that Maple Leaf, it comes with some huge expectations,” he said. Having fought through the toughest qualification process in the world just to earn a spot at the Games, the young team had been terrified of messing it up. Since curling returned to the Olympics in 1998, Canada’s men have appeared in every single gold-medal game. They triumphed in Turin, and again at home in Vancouver. Jacobs’s rink, however, struggled in the early going in Sochi, dropping back-to-back games to Switzerland and Sweden. They then won six straight to make it to the playoffs, and overcame China in the semifinals, guaranteeing themselves at least a silver. The gold, however, was always the plan. The only plan.

The Sault Ste. Marie foursome admit to being type-A personalities. Far-removed from the sport’s beer-and-cigarette past, they are fitness fanatics, dubbed the “Buff Boys,” and prefer to be called athletes, rather than curlers. They like to warm up to the sounds of thumping house music. They watch motivational video compilations of their best shots before big games. In short, they’re more like college football players than the folks down at the community bonspiel.

Curling is also the family business. The Harnden brothers are Jacobs’s cousins. Two of his uncles, Al and Eric—E.J. and Ryan’s dad—represented northern Ontario in the Brier. And before the trio were Team Canada, they won a high school championship in the Soo, and apprenticed with Al and Eric’s teams. The lone non-relation, Ryan Fry, has a similar pedigree: His dad, Barry, represented Manitoba in the national tournament on multiple occasions, winning it all in 1979. Maybe that’s why he fits in. “I’m an only child, but I felt like I jumped on with three brothers,” he said. Intense, focused and demanding siblings. “Our team is a passionate team. There’s no BS.”

It’s a far less friendly style of curling, filled with fist bumps, high-fives and the occasional expletive. It hasn’t always endeared them to the rest of the world. In the run-up to the gold-medal game, Soren Gran, the courtly Swedish coach of Great Britain’s team, complained about what he viewed as Canada’s excess of enthusiasm on the sheet. “The aggressive style we have seen from the Canadians here, that’s something I don’t like about the sport,” he told reporters. “I don’t think it helps anyone. It doesn’t help the player and it doesn’t help his teammates.” It proved to be the first bulletin-board material in the history of the sport.

“We knew about it, and it definitely lit a fire under us,” said Ryan Harnden. “It made us stronger.” His skip, Jacobs, went even further, suggesting that it might have been an attempt to psych them out—one that backfired badly. All night long, the Canadians were the quiet and composed ones, while Great Britain’s Murdoch, who curled an abysmal 69 per cent, grimaced and paced. “We believe in karma,” said Jacobs. “And what you saw out there tonight after those comments—it was a pretty strange thing.” Intensity on every shot is the Canadian team’s trademark, but they hardly had the occasion to demonstrate it in the gold-medal game. “Wide open shots for two, or three, are better than having to make something and go crazy,” said Jacobs.

So Team Canada saved it all for the end: Throwing their arms skyward, bear-hugging, backslapping, and shouting at their many friends and family in the crowd once it became official. They went over to kiss their wives, then took a Canadian flag that had been thrown from the stands and broke some more new ground in curling with a victory lap.

“E.J. asked me if I wanted to do it,” said Jacobs. “And I said, ‘Sure, why not? We can do whatever we want.’ ”

Winning gold has its privileges.

Maclean's March 10, 2014.