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Curling for the Kremelin

Gunnlaugson crew jumping to Russia with Olympic gold in mind

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JASON GUNNLAUGSON will soon be learning how to yell "hurry hard" in Russian.

Gunnlaugson announced Wednesday morning that he and teammates Tyler Forrest and Justin Richter are in negotiations with the Russian Curling Federation to move to Moscow part time and curl under the Russian umbrella.

Team Gunnlaugson will be sponsored by the Russian federation and will be joined by a pair of Russian curlers to form a team that will attempt to be competitive at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"Our goal is to be the best team in the world. This will give us a chance to curl full time and train full time and to get the international competition that is so hard to get," said the 25-year-old Gunnlaugson.

Last season his team, based in Beausejour, qualified for the Olympic Trials but struggled at the competition and finished eighth.

Gunnlaugson and his teammates will need to become Russian citizens to compete for that country at the Olympics. Russian citizens are required to spend 60 days a year in the country to retain their passport.

"Our goal is to compete and earn a spot for Sochi," said Gunnlaugson, who recently visited Moscow as a guest of the country's sport ministry and curling federation. "This is a chance to compete full time and to promote the sport in another country. It's also a great cultural opportunity -- the chance to learn another language and spend some time in a very interesting country."

Curl Manitoba executive director Shane Ray said the province regrets losing three up-and-coming curlers, but hopes their experience is positive.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the team and I wish them well," Ray said. "I think it's a compliment to Manitoba that when the world comes looking for the best in curling, they come to Manitoba.

"We have numerous people coaching on the world stage -- John Helston, Chris Hamblin, Lorne Hamblin and Howie Restall -- and our icemakers, led by Hans Wuthrich, Mark Shuryk and Greg Ewasko, are the best in the world...

"I am disappointed that they have chosen to go this way and not represent Manitoba and Canada, but I am sure in 2015 they will come back and be proud to compete for the Bison and Maple Leaf. I hope I have the opportunity to go to the 2014 Olympics and cheer them on as they win a silver medal after having lost to Canada."

Last season, the Gunnlaugson team collected close to $20,000 in sponsorship money from public and private sources.

"We lost money. We didn't break even. This will be a funded operation," said Gunnlaugson, who was born and raised in Winnipeg. "We will spend two months of the year living in Russia and compete on the World Curling Tour, playing two-thirds of our events in Canada and one-third in Europe."

He expects some negative backlash from his decision to leave his native land and compete for a foreign nation.

"I understand some people will think of this in a negative way," said Gunnlaugson, sporting a brush cut after shaving his famous floppy locks to raise money for the Sandra Schmirler Foundation.

"We want to be the best team in the world. This is an opportunity to make that happen. We think we're a solid team that is young and has lots of potential. This opportunity can help us get closer to that dream."

Ray said the Gunnlaugson defection should be a call to action for more government cash to support Canada's athletes.

"I think it is also a wake-up call that we need to look at how we fund and provide for our athletes," Ray said. "Some of our best athletes and coaches are going elsewhere because they can get paid to do what they love and are good at. We don't have a problem with it if they are hockey players, but take that approach to any other sport and they are sure to get criticized for it."

Gunnlaugson said negotiations with the Russian federation are almost complete. The Russians hope to have a better showing at the next Winter Olympics and approached Gunnlaugson's coach, Patti Wuthrich, about recruiting members of the team. Russia has never qualified a men's team for the Olympics.

The Russians stipulated that three Canadians and two Russians would form the team.

"We're going to do a lot of travelling and competing and will need that five-man rotation," Gunnlaugson said. "The offer was only for three of us. I've been curling with Tyler and Justin forever. Braden (Zawada) joined us just last year and the offer wasn't open for him. He understands this happens. He was great to curl with and is a wonderful guy and I wish we all could go."

turner: russia made offer he couldn't refuse c2


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 29, 2010 C1

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