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It was about bonspiels and babies and husbands and beer.

It was about ordinary Canadian women who were also superstars.

It was about winning. And it was about one overwhelming loss.

That was the Canadian women's curling team that won gold in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

Like her teammates, Joan McCusker is a Saskatchewan girl. She grew up in a tiny town along the Manitoba border called Saltcoats - population 500, "if you count the cats and dogs."

Saltcoats doesn't have a lot of big-city amenities. But it has a hockey arena. And it has a curling rink.

"When you're from the prairies and living on a farm, I think curling is one of those mainstays. It's one of those social things that weave people together," McCusker said in a recent interview.

As a kid she curled with her parents, her aunts and uncles, and her six brothers and sisters. Eventually, she curled with her husband, Brian McCusker, who has also curled at the national level. They met when matchmakers arranged for them to be on the same mixed team.

"We laugh a lot about the fact that three of the four of us met our husbands curling," McCusker said of the women who share her gold medal.

But, even if her marriage was orchestrated, her Olympic team was born by accident. Or, rather, it was a series of births that created the team.

In 1988, when McCusker was teaching at a school outside of Regina, her sister Cathy Trowel was asked to replace the lead of the reigning provincial champions who had dropped out to have a baby. Kathy Fahlman was the skip of that team, Sandra Schmirler was the third and Jan Betker was the second.

"My sister was absolutely over the top because this was her big break to get onto something more competitive," McCusker said. Then Trowel got pregnant. She was due to have her baby in March - the height of the season finals.

"Instead of letting go of this opportunity, because the women in our family are very stubborn, she started to get real creative and she phoned me and said, 'How do you feel about sharing a position?' " McCusker said.

So one sister played the first half of the year and the other played the last - and the chemistry between McCusker, Schmirler and Betker was undeniable.

In the spring of 1990, when Schmirler decided to skip her own team with Betker as third, she asked McCusker to join them as the second.

McCusker's original answer was no. She had agreed to play on another team with her sister and Marcie Gudereit.

"Then my sister found out she was pregnant [again]and due in November and the season was done," she said. "I went back [to Schmirler]and said, 'OK, I'll come. And I'm bringing Marcie.' "

At first, McCusker and Gudereit were bowled over by the ambition of Schmirler and Betker. Placing second or third was not an option for the hard-driven skip and her third. "The bar was raised right off the top," McCusker said.

But there was also plenty of fun.

"We loved to drink beer and just laugh a lot and play jokes on people," she said. "The four of us just had a great bubble going."

For the next seven years, Schmirler, Betker and Gudereit worked through their summers so they could take vacation during bonspiel season. McCusker, who couldn't do that as a teacher, took unpaid days off.

In 1996, they all got pregnant - a co-ordinated baby boom planned to minimize the impact on their training.

"In January of 1997, I had a four-year-old and an eight-month-old, Jan had a six-month-old, Marcie had a one-month-old and Sandra found out she was pregnant," she said.

They won the provincial, national and world championships that year with a skip who was carrying a baby.

Schmirler gave birth to Sara in September. And, in November, they were playing for the right to represent Canada in the Olympics.

"We are at the Olympic trials and Sandra is still breast feeding. Marcie breast-fed at Canadians in February of that year. I did it," McCusker said. "I've got to tell you, people have no idea the mothers' support group we had going on."

But the pressure of competition combined with the pressure of motherhood got to Schmirler.

"She had her own room at the Olympic trials with this two-month-old baby with a life that was just spinning totally out of control. And she came over that morning and said 'I'm not sure I want to win,' " McCusker said.

"She was crying. We sat down on the floor and, I have to tell you, we said, 'Let's just make a list of the good things that will happen if we lose and the good things that will happen if we win.' It really took the fear out of the game."

They decided to go for the win.

Oddly, McCusker said, the Olympics themselves were less stressful than the trials.

The games were compressed into a short time frame. And the women were playing teams they knew well - teams they had previously defeated at world championships.

"The run to get there was the story, was the journey, was the thing that developed the character and the memory of the experience," McCusker said.

But it was only half of the story. In 1998, with gold medals hanging around their necks, the women had a planning session. They agreed that they would spend one year enjoying the fruits of their win through bonspiels and endorsements. And the next year would be another baby year. Then, in 2001 they would return to competition and make a run at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In 2000, they were all pregnant again. "Sandra was due in June, Jan was due in August, Marcie was due in November and I was due at the end of December," McCusker said.

"We were working out together because we were trying to stay fit and Sandra would come with complaints about all sorts of things. But you could write them all off to pregnancy."

Schmirler had her baby, Jenna, on June 30 and just couldn't recover from the C-section.

On August 26, she asked McCusker to take care of her two tiny daughters while she went in for tests.

"They found a mass by the end of the day," McCusker said. "The next six months was all of the extreme treatments and trying to fight the beast that was this mass in her cavity."

Schmirler went through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and orthomolecular medicine. But nothing was able to kill the cancer.

She died on March 3, 2000, at the age of 36. McCusker's husband Brian gave the eulogy.

"It's a sad story whenever there is a young mother that gets sick or harmed or dies when there are little babies. Because everybody knows you can't replace the mom," McCusker said.

But Schmirler was also "a hero to all of these women across the country because they saw her at the Olympics and they identified with her as being just like them. Here was a gal that was chubby, was funny, was down-to-earth, that had a job, that had children, that had a husband, was juggling trying to have it all. And she was so honest and open with the media. Women across the country just loved her."

The team members, who were forced to do much of their grieving in the public eye, regrouped under skip Shannon Kleibrink.

But the magic was never the same. Eventually, McCusker quit competing to become a motivational speaker and to work as a curling expert for CBC television.

"I am never walking away from this sport," McCusker said. "This is such a great sport for ordinary people, for women that want to have it all, like us."

Even though she no longer curls, she still spends time at the rink, especially on Sunday afternoon when a particular mixed group of 11- and 12-year-olds is throwing rocks.

"Jan's son skips and my daughter plays third and Marcie's son plays second and Sandra's daughter plays lead," McCusker said.

"All of us then get to be upstairs and yell and scream and get behind the glass and kill ourselves at how much fun they are having. Sometimes they make no shots and end. Sometimes they make fantastic shots that they didn't call. So that's how curling is part of our lives. We're there with our kids."

Career highlights


Born: June 8, 1965, in Yorkton, Sask.

Resides: Regina

Notable accomplishments:

Won gold medal in women's curling at 1998 Nagano Olympics; Won gold at 1993, 1994 and 1997 World Curling Championships.

Her curling team: Sandra Schmirler, Jan Betker and Marcia Gudereit

Background: A school teacher for 10 years, she left in 1998 to focus on curling and her children. She has since become a motivational speaker and a curling commentator for CBC.

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