If there was any sense that curling was not getting the respect it deserved at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Sandra Schmirler never let on. Tucked away in the snowy mountain resort of Karuizawa, 66 km southeast from the main action in Nagano, Schmirler and her Canadian teammates played with exuberance on the ice, and were enthusiastic boosters of the sport off it. After games, they would linger over beers to explain the sport they loved to curious foreign reporters and confused Japanese fans for whom curling was a chaos of ricocheting rocks.
Schmirler's forever friendly exterior masked the tremendous stress she carried within. It was not just the pressure to bring home gold for the hundreds of thousands of curling-mad Canadians, but the emotional burden of being 15 time zones away from her infant daughter Sara, who stayed at home in Regina with Schmirler's husband, Shannon England, a computer systems analyst. Publicly, she had a curt answer to those who asked about the separation. "I have a beautiful daughter and that's the most important thing," she'd say. Privately, it was tougher to cope. When three-month-old Joey Hart arrived in Karuizawa where his father, Richard, was playing for Canada's men's team, Schmirler burst into tears at her first sight of the baby.
It was clear in the tributes that followed her death from cancer at just 36 last week that Schmirler will be remembered as much for her devotion to friends and family as for her success on the world's curling sheets. And the Biggar, Sask., native's sporting achievements were substantial. She and her rink of Jan Betker, Joan McCusker and Marcia Gudereit dominated the sport through the 1990s, winning three Canadian championships and three world titles to go with that first-ever Olympic gold. They did so with a style that declared they were just best friends out having a good time, almost amused that these wonderful things were happening to them.
The route to the top began in the flatlands of Biggar, where Schmirler and her two older sisters were introduced to curling by their parents, Shirley and Art. She was an all-around athlete, a good competitive swimmer, and she threw her first rocks on natural ice curling sheets flooded on the farm of her childhood friend Anita Silvernagle, who lived just outside of town. "Sandra was a fierce competitor - even as a kid she hated losing," recalled Silvernagle who skipped the rink with Schmirler playing third that won the 1981 Saskatchewan high-school championship. Silvernagle remained a lifelong friend, and described the sacrifices Schmirler made to climb to the top of her sport: the thousands of rocks thrown, the hours spent watching tapes of her delivery, the summer vacations sacrificed in order to have the time available to travel for winter competitions. "She gave up lots of things once she got that taste of winning," says Silvernagle.
As an adult, Schmirler curled out of Regina, where the competition even at the club level was always world-class. Her success made her famous in a sport that is the winter lifeblood of so many Canadian communities. "You could say curling is as much for the spirit as for the flesh," says the main character in Saskatchewan writer W.O. Mitchell's The Black Bonspiel of Willie MacCrimmon. That essence was apparent in Schmirler's emotional style: the hugs for teammates, the open joy in shots made. And when she showed up in Biggar for the annual rodeo days in the summer of 1998, she brought her gold medal and Olympic team jacket along, and let anyone who wanted try them on.
The cancer that claimed her was discovered in August, 1999, less than two months after the birth of her second daughter, Jenna, and only four months after her father died of cancer. Doctors attacked the tumour that was pressing on her esophagus with radiation and chemotherapy, but they were never able to determine the exact nature of the disease. While recovering from the treatments, she turned down countless requests for interviews and appearances, preferring to fight her battle privately, and spend every possible moment among loved ones, especially with her two little girls.
But as she began to feel better, she agreed to provide commentary on telecasts of the Canadian junior championship in Moncton last month. In a teary but brave news conference there, just three weeks before she died, an alternately funny and combative Schmirler declared her illness had made her see the world differently, and spoke of her wish to spend as much time with her family as possible. "I now know losing a curling game isn't the end of the world," she said. There are many, though, who say that Sandra Schmirler never lost sight of those things - family, friends, where you are from - that are most important in life.
Maclean's March 13, 2000