He is different from anyone else on the ice – in more ways than one.
He says he has no nickname though it could be “Spiderman” for the manner in which he slides out from the hack: crouched low as the handle on the curling stone, eyes sighted like a rifle as he takes aim and slowly, ever so gently, releases.
Ryan Fry is the odd man on the Brad Jacobs rink that will face China in the curling semi-final Wednesday. Odd in that he is shorter; odd that he is older; odd in that he is not related; odd in that, unlike the others – skip Jacobs and his cousins Ryan and E.J. Harnden – he does not come from Sault Ste. Marie and has no other job but curling.
He is a curling vagabond, a 35-year-old Winnipegger who, for two decades, has been chasing his dream to compete in the game he loves at the highest possible level.
Get by China, and Fry will realize that dream – he and the Jacobs clan will be in the Olympic gold-medal game. Likewise for Jennifer Jones’s undefeated rink from Winnipeg, which will play in their semi-final against Great Britain early Wednesday (very early in Canada). “Hopefully, when people wake up at home there will be a ‘W’ on the board,” says Jill Officer, Jones’ second.
The Jacobs rink has been one of the fascinating stories of Olympic curling. While the Russian women have attracted the photographers, the Canadian men, who arrived as the favourites, drew the doubters when they went 1-2 over the first three games and were clearly struggling.
“I think coming in, it was a little too much ‘Gold, gold, gold,’” says E.J. Harnden, “and that was the expectation not only from the majority of Canada and the curling world, but ourselves as well. So it was just getting that out of our minds.”
“I think coming here you try to fake it that you’re not feeling that pressure,” adds Jacobs. “But as you go through everything and get closer to the Olympics, you start to feel it, and I think when we got here, we really felt it.”
“So we just had to go back to basics, and realized we had to play our guts out, and I think we’re in a lot better state mentally, now. We’ve always been the team that does it the hard way, and we’re doing it the hard way again here.”
It was the back end that got them going – Fry with brilliant takeouts and guards that set up opportunities for Jacobs, who soon found his weight and his confidence. They never lost another match in the round robin, often winning dramatically, as in the last-rock draw by Jacobs that gave Canada the win over China.
Fry, in many ways, has been the secret to the rising success of what was already a pretty good men’s team. He had bounced around the country – Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland – and never really found his team until the Jacobs rink had an opening. He likes to say that the day he first curled with them, he felt he had found his long-lost “brothers.”
Fry came in to curl third, forcing E.J. Harnden to move a slot and curl second. But that created an exceptional front end in the fit Harnden brothers. While the other three throw a more traditional style, Fry uses the technique taught to him by his Brier-winning father, Barry “The Snake” Fry, which is known as “tuck-sliding” or the “Manitoba tuck.” At the Ice Cube curling venue, he is as noticeable for his crouch as the Harndens are for their biceps.
“It’s just a style of throw,” says Fry. “There’s no benefit or anything to it. It’s the same thing as a baseball player throwing a pitch or a golfer having a different swing. It all ends up with the same result. A curling delivery is basically your release point, the last couple of feet before you deliver – and how you get there is just basically cosmetic.”
Whatever, it works, and it has taken him, finally, to where he wants to be.
“I’ve definitely had my ups and downs,” Fry says. “But I know the guy that I am now, the player and teammate that I’ve turned into. It’s definitely a learning process over the course of 10, 15 years that I’ve been competing, but that’s what growing up in sports is all about. It’s finding the flaws in yourself and being able to bring a better version every season and every year. And hopefully that version helps the team. It’s starting to pay off.”
Fry already sports one tattoo on his arm, one that he will only describe as “personal.” If they get by China, however, and if they “gut” their way to another win in the gold medal game, he plans to get another one that will be all about this experience.
But he won’t say what it might be, or where it might go: “I definitely have no intentions to drop my pants to show my patriotism.”
His team, of course, is hoping for Canada’s third straight gold in men’s curling; the women have not seen gold since Sandra Schmirler’s rink won at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. But before they dare dream about such glory, both teams in Sochi have to get past very strong opponents.
“The semi-final is often the hardest to play,” says Colleen Jones, the two-time world champion who is CBC’s colour analyst at curling.
“I absolutely agree with that,” says Jacobs. “In some ways, it’s a little bit more stressful than the final game. So we’re definitely not going to overlook this game. We know China is tough, they played unreal all round-robin [Jacobs beat China 9-8 in the final match], maybe the best team in terms of their execution. So we need to put a real good game together to beat them.”