Tahli Gill’s last stone fell perfectly into place.
Gill and his mixed doubles partner Dean Hewitt had beaten Korea.
And Australia, a nation without a single professional curling rink within its vast borders, had qualified a curling team for the Winter Olympics for the first time in its history.
“I tried not to think that this shot was the shot to go to the Olympics,” said Gill.
“I really simplified it and I could feel my heart go up a lot, so I took the deepest breath in the world and trusted all the hard work that I put in.
“It still hasn’t sunk that we’re leaving for the Olympics. “
On the other side of the world, from Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, where Gill and Hewitt competed in the Olympic qualifying event, a tight-knit community held its breath.
Australia had moved closer before. The men’s team lost half a point before qualifying for the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver after a two-year qualifying cycle. Many took it as a sign that the drought would never end.
But what Australian curling lacks in funding and visibility, it makes up for in passion and ingenuity. A country that welcomes its “nationals” abroad due to the lack of local facilities has sort of fought for access to the biggest sport scene.
“This win for us is great for people who haven’t quite reached the level of Australian curling as well,” said Kim Forge, President of the Australian Curling Federation (ACF).
“There are 65 countries competing for 10 places at the Olympics. So not only do you have to be good, you have to be very good.
The ACF has been around since the mid-1980s, but the sport’s existence in Australia dates back to the 1930s. The organization has worked tirelessly to attempt to qualify a team for the Olympics since the sport was properly introduced in 1998 in Nagano.
It has been a long road.
Curling is far from professional in Australia. Gill, 22, and Hewitt, 27, didn’t start receiving permanent funding until after the 2019 World Championships, when they finished fourth – losing to the United States in the medal game bronze. “It was seen as a potential for an Olympic podium,” said Forge.
Beijing will be the second time mixed doubles have been featured in curling and Forge was planning for the future. She has traveled all over the place to try to secure the support of the young pair in time for the 2026 Olympics in Milan.
She couldn’t believe how quickly the progression had come.
“Until Dean and Tahli’s breakthrough we didn’t have substantial funding, the athletes were almost 100% self-funded,” said Forge. “I knew we had something special and we could use a plan to put in place for them, they had the potential.
“I pitched to all the people who wanted to listen in the last 10 years, saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got something, we’re going to make it happen. [to the Olympics], it will happen “.
“When I made my last throw in Melbourne, I thought it would be for the next Olympic team. I wasn’t going to put that pressure and expectations on this one. The golden age for a curler is probably in your mid-30s because you have to be very strong mentally.
“So the OWIA (Olympic Winter Institute of Australia) took a chance with us at the time, knowing we had potential and wanted to curl at the Olympic Games in Australia, and it worked. “
Forge enlisted Canadian John Morris, a former Olympic curling champion, to coach the duo. Morris’s father Earl coached the Australian men’s team in 2010 which narrowly missed qualifying.
Gill and Hewitt also have a curling pedigree. Tahli’s mother and both Dean’s parents were international curlers. Dean’s father competed in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville where curling was a demonstration sport.
“It’s a long line of fighting, it’s real Australian history,” said Forge, herself a former world-class curler.
“Dean and Tahli both played in the juniors for Australia, so they moved on thanks to our junior program. Tahli’s mom has been her trainer for years and years and there is no funding for it, it is all on their own.
“We thought it could happen, but it’s so good that this is our reality.”
The biggest obstacle to curling’s ambition to become a professional sport in Australia has been the lack of facilities. Australia does not have a professional curling rink. Tournaments can be held on regular ice hockey surfaces, but not to international standards.
“It would be similar to playing lawn bowls on the beach,” Forge said. “It really is so different. “
The ACF must therefore organize its national championships in New Zealand. The Naseby Indoor Curling Rink in central Otago is Australia’s closest dedicated curling rink.
Hundreds of Australian curlers, all self-funded, make the annual pilgrimage to New Zealand’s South Island to compete.
“We needed the results to get the support. We understand that because it’s a business and we compete with athletes from different countries who are paid professionals and have been for a long time, ”said Forge.
“I see a huge audience [coming after the Olympics]. We’re ready, we’ve talked about it, and we have a plan in place with our Australian Curling Federation. We have curling in Western Australia, Victoria and Queensland, and they’ll all be ready to go with the new influx of interest in February.
Gill and Hewitt have already left the Netherlands to return to Canada and finalize their preparation for the Beijing Games. But even after their incredible feat, they were only focused on what it would do for the sport in Australia.
“Our ultimate goal is to participate in the Olympics, but I hope that next to that, build an ice rink in Australia. Hopefully that brings us closer to that, ”Hewitt said.
With any outsider history tied to the Winter Olympics, comparisons will inevitably be made to the 1993 film Cool Runnings which popularized the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s trip to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.
But Forge hopes the sport’s path reflects another classic.
“Ideally it’s like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, you know, ‘Build it and they’ll come,’” Forge said. “Dean and Tahli are the complete package and Australia is going to fall in love with them.”