They almost had it

Cheryl Bernard and her Canadian women’s curling team had the gold medal halfway around their necks. Then, in a few seconds, it slipped away.

They almost had it

Photograph by Tannen Maury/EPA

Cheryl Bernard has been curling for a very long time. Since she was a little girl, in fact. But not until her final match as a 2010 Olympian did she understand the true meaning of a steal.

The gold medal was hers. Everyone in the building sure thought so, clanging their cowbells and chanting her name. In the tenth end, when she was still up by two, Bernard was caught flashing that unmistakable smile, the one athletes get when they know they’re about to win, but are trying not to gloat.

And then she lost.

It didn’t happen in a blink of an eye. It actually took quite a few minutes for her gold to melt into silver, right there in front of 5,600 screaming witnesses. But even Anette Norberg, the Swedish skip who ended up with Bernard’s medal, had trouble putting into words exactly what she saw. “It just happened,” she said. “I don’t know how.”

From a strict curling standpoint, here’s what happened: in that tenth end, Bernard’s rink was up 6-4 and needed the boss to complete a rather routine takeout to seal the win. But the Swedish stone in the house ricocheted off another Canadian rock and stuck around, allowing Norberg to hit for two and send the match into overtime. In the extra end, Bernard had the hammer in hand, two rival rocks in the circle—and a chance at redemption. All she had to do was land a standard double takeout. The shot missed. 7-6 Sweden.

That’s the technical explanation. The painful truth is that Cheryl Bernard blew it. And she knows it. “Obviously, I just didn’t throw the last one good enough,” she said afterwards, tears in her eyes. “Those are the shots that you need to make to win.”

Sporting her silver medal (and a very brave face), the skip tried to explain what went wrong. Her rock in the tenth, she said, just didn’t curl quite enough, probably because it hit a patch of bad ice. The eleventh? “It was a pretty routine double,” she said. “It missed by a millimetre.” And when it did, the arena went numb. “I had two chances to win that game,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Until those last two ends, a curling-mad nation couldn’t have asked for anything more, either. At the Vancouver Olympic Centre—a frat party on ice where the dress code was sparkly wigs, maple-leaf capes and a beer in each fist—Bernard was the star attraction, winning games and winning hearts. She wasn’t the best curler in the field. Some would argue that she isn’t even the best female skip in Canada. But for two weeks, the 43-year-old defied expectations, inspired poetry (“Hurry hard, Bernard!”) and injected a certain sex appeal into a very unsexy sport. When it came to marriage proposals from the crowd, she was the runaway winner.

Yet now—and for many years to come—Bernard will be famous for what she didn’t do: nail that final shot. Twice. “Eventually, this silver is going to feel great,” she said. “Just right now, the gold was very close.”

They almost had it

Photograph by Morry Gash/Associated Press

Born in Grande Prairie, Alta., Bernard was only eight years old when her father taught her to slide the stone. She was a natural talent, smart and committed. But her best finish in the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, Canada’s national women’s championship, was a second place. And that was back in 1996. So it was no real surprise that the experts didn’t much like her chances at the Olympic trials in December, where the field included three-time Scotties champ Jennifer Jones and 2006 Olympic bronze medallist Shannon Kleibrink.

But Bernard, who owns an insurance company in real life, was magnificent. Joined by third Susan O’Connor, second Carolyn Darbyshire and lead Cori Bartel, she made clutch shot after clutch shot, sweeping aside both Jones and Kleibrink on her way to an improbable Olympic berth. The pundits were shocked, but not the people who know her best. “She is competitive about everything,” her husband, Terry Meek, told one reporter. “I mean, she’ll be competitive about results from her doctor. She wants to have the lowest cholesterol numbers.”

Her health is certainly not a concern. Bernard pumps iron, takes “fitness vacations,” and works her mind just as hard as her body. A disciple of sports psychology, she co-wrote Between the Sheets: Creating Curling Champions, a book about how to win with mental toughness. Which, until those final two ends, is exactly what she did in Vancouver.

Even in that final game, before the collapse, Bernard was her typical self. Down by two after five ends, she snagged a single in the sixth and pulled off yet another magical shot in the seventh, a gorgeous hit-and-stick for a steal of two and a 5-4 edge. She was rolling. The crowd was electric. Even the Swedes were certain it was over. “We thought: ‘Oh well, we’ll get silver,’ ” said Cathrine Lindahl, the team’s second. “But then we won. I can’t believe we won.”

Nobody else can, either. “It’s still sinking in,” O’Connor said. “But as much as it hurts right now, I think maybe tomorrow or in a week or in a month or in a year we’re going to be really, really proud of this. There are a million curlers in Canada that would kill to be in my spot right now.”

She’s right, of course. A silver medallist is hardly a loser, especially one who falls to the defending Olympic champion. But like everyone watching, Bernard knows she was in control of that match. She was minutes away from standing on the top step, and silver was the absolute last thing she wanted. “I couldn’t ask for an easier shot,” she said. “But…”

As Bernard wiped her eyes with a Kleenex, her teammates said all the right things. “Cheryl has been so stellar,” Bartel said. “Half an inch. That was the difference between winning and losing.” When a reporter asked O’Connor what she told the skip after that final miss, she leaned closer to the microphone. “I’m really glad you asked that,” she said. “Cheryl is the reason we’re sitting up here now. She is the reason we were at the Olympics. There is nobody in the world that I would rather have throwing last rock for me.”

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