Australia qualifies curling team for Olympics for the first time at Beijing 2022

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Tahli Gill’s last stone fell perfectly into place.

Gill and her mixed doubles partner, Dean Hewitt, had beaten Korea.

And Australia, a nation without a single professional curling rink anywhere within its broad borders, had qualified a curling team for the Winter Olympics for the first time in history.

“I tried hard not to think about that shot being the shot to go to the Olympics,” Gill said.

“I just really simplified it and I could feel my heart rising a lot so I took the world’s deepest breath and trusted all the hard work put in would pull through.

“It still hasn’t sunk in that we’re off to the Olympics.”

On the other side of the world from Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, where Gill and Hewitt were competing in the Olympic Qualifying Event, a tight-knit community held its breath.

Australia had gone close before. The men’s team fell half a point short of making the 2010 Vancouver Olympics after a two-year qualification cycle. Many took it as a sign that the drought would never end.

But what Australian curling lacks in funding and exposure it makes up in passion and resourcefulness. A country that hosts its “Nationals” overseas due to the absence of local facilities has somehow fought its way onto the sport’s grandest stage.

“This victory for us is great for the people that didn‘t quite get there in Australian curling too,” said Kim Forge, president of the Australian Curling Federation (ACF).

“There are 65 countries that are competing for 10 spots at the Olympics. So, not only do you have to be good, you‘ve got to be very good.”

The ACF has operated since the mid 1980s but the sport’s existence in Australia dates back to the 1930s. The organisation has worked tirelessly in their attempts to qualify a team for the Olympic Games since the sport was properly introduced in 1998 in Nagano.

It has been a long road.

Curling is nowhere near professional in Australia. Gill, 22, and Hewitt, 27, only started to receive permanent funding after the 2019 World Championships when they finished fourth – losing to the US in the bronze medal match. “It was considered Olympic podium potential,” Forge said.

Beijing will be the second time mixed doubles has featured in curling and Forge was planning for the future. She travelled far and wide in an attempt to get the young pair support in time for the 2026 Olympics in Milan.

She couldn’t believe how quickly the progression came.

There were plenty of emotions on display once it was confirmed the Australian pair had received the quota spot. Picture: © WCF / Steve SeixeiroSource: Supplied

“Until Dean and Tahli’s breakthrough, we didn‘t have any substantial funding, the athletes were almost 100% self-funded,” Forge said. “I knew that we had something special and we could use a plan to put in place for them, they had the potential.

“I have been pitching to all the people that would listen for the last 10 years, saying, ‘Hey, we‘ve got something, we’re going to get there [to the Olympics], it’s going to happen’.

“When I did my last pitch in Melbourne, I thought that it would be for the next Olympic squad. I wasn‘t going to put that pressure and expectation on this one. Probably the prime age for a curler is in the mid-30s because you have to be so mentally tough.

“So the OWIA (Olympic Winter Institute of Australia) took a chance on us at the time, knowing that we had potential and wanting to get curling in the Olympics for Australia, and it‘s worked.”

Forge brought in Canadian John Morris, a former Olympic curling champion, to coach the pair. Morris’ father, Earl, coached the Australian men’s team in 2010 that narrowly missed qualification.

Gill and Hewitt also have a curling pedigree. Tahli’s mum and both of Dean’s parents were international curlers. Dean’s father participated in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville where curling was a demonstration sport.

“It‘s a long line of battling, it’s a true Aussie story,” Forge said, herself a former world-ranked curler.

“Both Dean and Tahli have played juniors for Australia so they‘ve come up through our junior program. Tahli’s mum was her coach for years and years and years and there’s no funding for that, this is all on their own backs.

“We believed it could happen but it‘s just so nice that this is our reality.”

Dean Hewitt’s parents both were involved in curling internationally. Picture: © WCF / Steve SeixeiroSource: Supplied

The biggest obstacle in curling’s ambition to become a professional sport in Australia has been a lack of facilities. Australia does not have a professional curling rink. Tournaments can be held on regular ice hockey surfaces, but not up to international standard.

“That would be similar to playing lawn bowls on the beach,” Forge said. “It’s seriously that different.”

The ACF, accordingly, has to hold its National Championships in New Zealand. The Naseby Indoor Curling Rink in central Otago is the closest dedicated curling rink to Australia.

Hundreds of Australian curlers, all self-funded, make the annual pilgrimage to the south island of New Zealand to compete.

“We‘ve needed the results to get the support. We understand it because it’s a business and we’re competing against athletes in different countries that are paid professionals and have been for a long time,” Forge said.

“I see a huge following [coming after the Olympics]. We’re ready, we‘ve talked about this and we have a plan in place with our Australian Curling Federation. We have curling in Western Australia, in Victoria and in Queensland, and they’ll all be ready to go with the new influx of interest come February.”

The Australian Curling Federation is hopeful that the sport’s involvement in the 2022 Olympics will be the start of something special in Australia. Picture: © WCF / Steve SeixeiroSource: Supplied

Gill and Hewitt have already left the Netherlands to return to Canada and finalise their preparation for the Beijing Games. But even after their incredible achievement, they were only focused on what it would do for the sport in Australia.

“Our ultimate goal is making the Olympics but hopefully alongside that, building a rink in Australia. Hopefully, it gets us closer to that,” Hewitt said.

With any Winter Olympic-related underdog story, comparisons will inevitably be made to the 1993 film Cool Runnings which popularised the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s journey to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

But Forge is hopeful the sport’s path will mirror another classic.

“Ideally it‘s like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, you know, ‘Build it and they will come’,” Forge said. “Dean and Tahli are the complete package and Australia is going to fall in love with them.”