For someone who had seen all the glory and received all the accolades an athlete can, Sandra Schmirler took special delight in the simple things in life. Even though she won world championships and an Olympic gold medal, nothing was more important to her than family and friends.
Yesterday, those people mourned the passing of the 36-year-old, three-time world curling champion, who succumbed to cancer.
"She was the world's greatest curler, there's no doubt about it," said Anne Merklinger, the Ottawa skip who finished second last week in the Canadian women's championship and who spearheaded a campaign that saw curlers wear specially designed pins as a sign of support for Schmirler. "But she was more than that. She was pretty special to all of us."
"It's a loss for curling, certainly, but we can't lose sight of the fact that she was a great person, a great mother," said Heather Houston, a two-time Canadian champion from Thunder Bay.
Schmirler was diagnosed with cancer last August and underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments. On Jan. 10, she was released from a Regina hospital and in February made her first public appearance at a news conference during the Canadian junior championship in Moncton. She was there to work as a commentator on the CBC coverage of the event, and although appearing somewhat weak, she still possessed the confidence and determination she displayed on the curling ice.
"Obviously, it's been a hell of a fight," she said.
At that time, Schmirler said she wanted to return to competitive curling, but it seemed the roaring game had taken a back seat to more traditional values. She expressed her desire to take a vacation with her family to a warm location, something she'd never been able to do because of her busy curling schedule.
And she also told of the joy of being able to get enough strength to bathe her daughter Jenna, born last June, and to be home from the hospital in October to see her other daughter, two-year-old Sara, go out for Halloween.
That was not unusual for the native of Biggar, Sask., who, despite the huge legion of fans, was never too busy to sign an autograph, say hello or inquire about a friend's child.
"She was so much more than a curler," Merklinger said. "She and I shared a perspective on how curling fit into the rest of our lives with family and children, and we'd talk about that, not necessarily strategy. That's what made her different."
"I think she loved curling, but there's no doubt she was happiest when she was a mom," said Dave Parkes, the general manager of the Canadian Curling Association.
Schmirler was supposed to provide TV commentary last week at the Scott Tournament of Hearts in Prince George, B.C., but was admitted to hospital because of back pain. Her condition deteriorated and she died in the early hours of yesterday.
News of the extent of her illness was kept from the competitors at the national championship, many of whom were close friends, until the closing banquet on Sunday night. A message from Schmirler was read out at the dinner, and she expressed hope she'd return to curling. But gradually it became known that she might not leave the hospital, and the mood of the party turned sombre.
According to Parkes, her worsening illness was likely known at the time of her news conference in Moncton, but being back at a major curling event was in some ways medicinal.
"There was a public perception and image she wanted to display," he said. "I think it was a case of trying to put mind over reality."
Schmirler and her team of Jan Betker, Joan McCusker and Marcia Gudereit won their first Canadian championship in 1993 and followed it up with a second a year later. After each of those victories, the team added a world title.
On the competitive trail, the Schmirler rink was no less successful. In the 1993-94 season, even though the women's game had fewer events than the men's and the purses were smaller, Schmirler's team won more than $26,000, which would have placed it sixth on the men's money list.
In 1997, they enjoyed what is perhaps the best season on record. In February, Schmirler skipped her rink to a third Canadian championship. Two months later, she added another world title, and then in November, she captured the Canadian Olympic trials in what is generally considered the most competitive event in the game's history.
That win came only weeks after Schmirler gave birth to Sara, and several games had to be delayed so the skip could breastfeed her daughter.
It was in the final of that championship, in Brandon, that Schmirler played what many remember as her finest shot. Facing three opposition stones buried in the four-foot circle, Schmirler banked her final rock off another at the edge of the sheet and redirected it perfectly onto the shot stone in the button to score one. Her team went on to win the Olympic trials and then capture the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games.
The Olympic win exemplified Schmirler's determination and grit on the ice. She and her team just seemed to refuse to lose. They would not accept defeat, especially in big games.
"We just don't like to lose, plain and simple," Schmirler once said in explaining her team's success. "All of us are so competitive and we share the same vision.
"When you played her you were in awe," said Colleen Jones, a two-time Canadian champion. "You knew she was better. You knew she was going to beat you. It was like playing against Gretzky."
The team was honoured several times through the years. It was voted as The Canadian Press team of the year for 1998, and Schmirler was inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame in March of 1999. The rink was also chosen for many lists of Canadian sporting successes of the century.
"You only have to look at great teams around the world to get a perspective of how good that team was," Merklinger said.
"She already had a place in history, but she was still writing chapters," Houston added.
Off the ice, Schmirler had not always been happy. Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1992, and she admitted that her self-esteem bottomed out. To compensate, she threw herself into curling, practising and playing almost every day.
But in 1993, she met Shannon England, who would become her husband. Except when she was on the ice, they were rarely apart, and it became common to see them embracing in curling rinks around the world as they celebrated her success. It also softened Schmirler and gave her a more rounded life.
"In the early nineties, Sandra just played to win," Jones said. "After she found love, I think she realized it was just a game, that there were other things in life. She became a better person to play against."
The CCA said it will honour Schmirler at the Labatt Brier, which will begin tomorrow in Saskatoon.
In addition to her husband and two children, Schmirler leaves her mother, Shirley.
Born: June 11, 1963. Hometown: Biggar, Sask. Residence: Regina. Family: Husband, Shannon; daughters Sara, 2, and Jenna, nine months. Occupation: Leisure centre supervisor. Curling accomplishments: Teamed with third Jan Betker, second Joan McCusker and lead Marcia Gudereit to win three Canadian and world championships (1993, '94, '97); Saskatchewan foursome, with coach Atina Ford, made Olympic history in Nagano in 1998 by winning first women's curling gold medal and voted as The Canadian Press team of year for 1998 by sports editors and broadcasters; inducted into Canadian Curling Hall of Fame in March of 1999.