‘Old Bear’ has his day

It took eight years, but Kevin Martin has finally avenged the sting of a last-shot loss in the final at Salt Lake City. Canada’s best curler is now an Olympic champion.

‘Old Bear’ has his day
Photograph by Morry Gash/Associated Press

The crowd didn’t bother waiting for the podium ceremony. Halfway through the final end, with Kevin Martin’s rink up by three in the gold-medal match, a few fans started singing O Canada. It spread slowly at first, section by section, but by “God keep our land glorious and free,” the entire place was belting out the anthem. Even Martin—Mr. Serious—couldn’t keep from smiling.

Eight long years after a heartbreaking silver medal in Salt Lake City, the best curler in the world had his Olympic gold, beating Norway and their diamond-checkered pants in the men’s final. The 6-3 win capped off Canada’s best day at the Vancouver Games (three gold and one bronze) and marked a raucous return to glory for the country’s other national sport. “Finally,” Martin said, the invisible monkey gone from his back. “It’s been a lot of work and a lot of years, and it feels really good. I said to the guys when we were coming to the podium: ‘It’s like we’re walking through a dream.’ ”

It was certainly a dream tournament for the Martin rink, which didn’t lose a single match on the way to gold. Their play in the finale was equally dominant. Third John Morris had the game of his life, landing one double takeout after another, and the skip sealed the deal in the seventh end with a perfect freeze in the circle that set up two points and a commanding lead. After both sides exchanged singles in the eighth and ninth, it was anthem time. “You get tingles and jitters up the spine,” said Marc Kennedy, Martin’s second. “You’re up three, you have a home crowd in the Olympic Games, and they’re singing the anthem. It just doesn’t get any better.” Thomas Ulsrud, the Norwegian skip, actually leaned over to Martin and said: “You’ve got to love this crowd, don’t you?’ ”

You really do. Of all the venues at the 2010 Games, none—not even the hockey arena—attracted more delirious fans than the Vancouver Olympic Centre. With only 5,600 seats, the place has a movie theatre feel, except people in movie theatres don’t stomp their feet in unison, honk air horns at the most inappropriate times, or ask Cheryl Bernard to marry them. It got so loud and ridiculous that some players had to resort to hand signals because “Hurry hard!” was being drowned out by “Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those sweepers?!” Most of the spectators showed up in red and white Team Canada jerseys. Some wore wigs or face paint or top hats with maple leaves. One guy was especially good at howling like a coyote.

And Kevin Martin was their god. When his final stone hit and stuck, confirming the inevitable, it’s a miracle the building didn’t fall down. “It was just an amazing game,” he said. “When that rock was going to make contact, that was about as good a feeling as you can get.” Almost as good as standing on the top of the podium, listening to O Canada for a second time.

Except for that large gold medal around his neck, Martin doesn’t scream “elite athlete.” He is bald and 43 and despite years of curling greatness, never seems quite comfortable in front of a microphone. As a kid growing up on his parents’ farm in Lougheed, Alta., he suffered from asthma and had to wear a mask if he was standing near the barley. As an adult, he looks more like a sporting goods salesman than a sportsman, which, by the way, is exactly what he is. His shop is called Kevin’s Rocks-n-Racquets, and it’s in Edmonton.

Don’t be fooled, though. His nickname may be “Old Bear,” but lurking inside that bald head is a relentless, calculating competitor.

Consider this scenario. After going undefeated in the round robin and qualifying for the semi-finals, Martin and his team (Kennedy, Morris, lead Ben Hebert and alternate Adam Enright) were lucky enough to attend Canada’s trouncing of Russia in the quarter-final hockey game. “It was unbelievable,” Kennedy said. “We sat up in a section surrounded by the Russian athletes. There was a little Cold War up in Section 309.”

‘Old Bear’ has his day
Photograph by Tannen Maury/ EPA/ Keystone Press

The following day, a Thursday, Martin’s rink topped Sweden for a spot in Saturday’s final. The next hockey game was slated for Friday night, and because it brought them such good luck the first time around, some of the guys were hoping to go. But there was one problem: they had a practice booked for the exact same time. “Disaster,” Kennedy quipped. “Maybe we’ll let Kev come practise and the rest of us will go.” When a reporter told Hebert about the scheduling conflict, he went along with the fun. “I’m definitely more excited about our hockey game.”

Martin? He was stone-faced. For him, even joking about cancelling practice was sacrilege. “I’d love to see the hockey game,” he said, his tone not quite so loving. “But we won’t miss our practice in order to do so.”

It’s hard to blame Martin for being so serious. For him, Vancouver was a rare chance at redemption, an opportunity to finally make things right. In 2002, the skip was one shot away from winning gold against Norway, staring at curling’s equivalent of a gimme putt: a draw to the four-foot circle. He left it a smidgen too heavy—less than an inch—and came home with a silver instead.

Martin has insisted, over and over, that he doesn’t dwell on the past nearly as much as the media thinks he does. He’s been asked about Salt Lake a billion times, and each time it’s the same answer: “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.” But that loss clearly stung. In 2006, after failing to earn a return trip to the Olympics, he overhauled his entire squad. Out were long-time teammates Don Walchuk, Carter Rycroft and Don Bartlett, replaced by new blood more than a decade younger than Martin.

It proved to be the right move. For three years, the revamped Martin rink was number one in the country—and now they’re Olympic champions. “I’m pretty sure he didn’t want another silver in that trophy case at home, so it was nice to get that gold medal for him,” Morris said. “We put in a lot of hard work in the last four years, and it’s great that it’s paid off. You dream big, work hard and anything can happen.”

“We’re really proud of him,” Kennedy added. “He put together a plan for us, we stuck with it, and it’s come to fruition. I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s the best player to ever play, and he’s topped himself today.”

Ulsrud, the Norwegian skip, was so impressed with his rival’s performance that he urged him, tongue-in-cheek, to retire—because as long as Martin is around, nobody else has a prayer. “Against all the other teams here, the way we played today would have been a tight match,” he said. “But against these guys, you’re going to be crushed. They just smacked us. What can I say? That’s how good these guys are.”

For the record, Martin has no plans to hang up his broom. Why should he? An Olympic champion after all these years, he can finally stand in a room full of reporters and not have to answer the same old question. For the first time, he actually looked like he was enjoying the attention.

One reporter asked him about all the buzz that surrounded the curling tournament—including the sport’s newfound sex appeal. “I will not be a sex symbol,” he laughed. “Maybe at an old-age home.”

And what about those crazy Norwegian pants, the ones with the red and grey diamonds and a Facebook page all to themselves? (Yes, it’s the pants that have the page, not the players wearing them.) “Very European,” Martin answered.

Would you wear them? “No,” he said. “I’m not sure Canada is ready for that.”

Probably not. It was shocking enough just to see Kevin Martin crack a smile while a match was still in progress.