Jennifer Jones and her team are going somewhere no Manitoba-based curlers have gone before — the Winter Olympics.
For the first time since curling became a full medal sport in Nagano in 1998, a team from Manitoba will represent Canada in Olympic curling and it will be Winnipeg’s Jones, who saw a lifelong dream culminate spectacularly Saturday night at the MTS Centre in an 8-4 win over Sherry Middaugh in the women’s final of the Tim Hortons Roar of the Rings.
"I can’t even describe it," Jones sobbed afterward. "You dream of it since you’re a little kid and we’ve had many dreams come true. But this is so rare, this opportunity. Our dreams came true today — and in the most amazing way. It’s unbelievable."
The win, which played out in storybook fashion before a huge and partisan hometown crowd, means Jones and her squad — third Kaitlyn Lawes, second Jill Officer and lead Dawn McEwen — will play for Canada at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Feb. 10-21.
And so with that, a skip who had won everything there is to win in curling, with the exception of the right to represent her country at the Olympics, has now won that too — and discovered to her delight the triumph of a lifetime was even better than her wildest dreams.
"Way better," said Jones. "I mean, look at this — we’re at home, we played outstanding from the first day through to the final. We just came so prepared, we had this plan, we worked so hard and to see everything come true and to do it here in front of this great crowd is unbelievable."
Victory came early on this night. After surviving a shaky first end — thanks largely to a memorable triple takeout by Officer that bailed her team out of what was looking like big trouble — Jones served notice in the second end she would not be denied on this night.
After a nervous Middaugh fired a final-rock draw attempt out the back of the house, Jones made the Coldwater, Ont. skip pay dearly, executing a double-takeout that cleaned house — with the exception of three Jones’ counters.
"I don’t think I missed a handful of draws all week," lamented Middaugh. "It’s been a great week and I thought we played really well. Unfortunately, my worst game was that game."
A 3-0 second-end lead was 4-1 at the fifth-end break, but Middaugh wasn’t quite done yet, scoring two with the hammer in the sixth to narrow Jones’s lead to 4-3 and bring a boisterous crowd of 8,565 to the edge of their seats.
But just when it seemed like the night might be slipping away, Jones used her final rock of the seventh to remove a Middaugh counter and score her second three-ender of the night, effectively putting Middaugh away for good.
By night’s end, the shooting percentages suggested the Jones squad had quite literally saved their very best for last — shooting 92 per cent as a team, with Officer leading the way with an astonishing 99 per cent performance in the final.
It was all sweet vindication for a Jones team that had not won on the biggest national stage since adding Lawes at third in the fall of 2010, losing Canadian finals in 2011 and 2013 and a Canadian semifinal in 2012.
But on a team that was built from the very start with the singular goal of getting to the Olympics, they won a trials final that only comes every four years and has increasingly become the only game that really matters to Canadian curlers.
"These last three years leading up to these trials was trying to get us where we are right now. And we worked our butts off," said Lawes, who came up big in the final with a 90 per cent outing.
"Everyone just worked so hard. And to have a leader like Jennifer, it’s amazing."
The Olympics will serve as a reunion of sorts for Lawes. The Scottish women’s entry in Sochi will be skipped by Eve Muirhead, the reigning world champion and the woman who beat Lawes in 2009 in the final of the world junior curling championship.
"We’ll have a little battle with her," Lawes laughed.
Indeed, heading into Sochi, the Jones foursome will likely be the gold medal co-favourite with Muirhead as Jones attempts to win Canada its first gold medal in women’s curling since Sandra Schmirler in 1998.
This won’t be a coronation by any means, however. Jones, for all her success in Canada, has had her struggles at world events, winning gold just once — in 2008 — in four trips to the women’s worlds.
Jones was asked if in her moment of triumph, there was also a tinge of relief that something she had worked for so hard for so long had finally been put behind her.
"No relief — I’m sad it’s over," said Jones. "I’m really happy we won, but this was so much fun. There was no relief — we enjoyed every shot today. Win or lose, we were going to enjoy it.
"And I can tell you for sure, we enjoyed it."