KINGSTON -- It's like watching a grand old thoroughbred take to the racetrack one too many times.
The fire is still there -- that never leaves, you can see it in their eyes. And there are still glimpses of what horse-racing people refer to as 'back-class' -- those fleeting little moments that reveal this was once a champion who competed at the very highest levels.
But then the gate opens and the real world intrudes and the hard truth is revealed -- that the legs are no longer as fast, even if the heart is still just as big.
What happens next, of course, is hard to watch. But we're watching this week anyway -- on televisions across the nation -- as Nova Scotia legend Colleen Jones and the rest of what was once the greatest team in all of women's curling stumbles its way around the track here at the Canadian women's curling championship.
With another loss here on Monday -- an 11-4 shellacking by Manitoba's Jennifer Jones -- Nova Scotia is now better than one-third through this race and has still yet to win in four attempts. Even worse is that they've been getting throttled, doubled up on the scoreboard by a combined score of 36-18 and giving up an average of nine points per game.
It is a sad spectacle from a team that includes all four members -- Jones, Kim Kelly, Mary-Anne Arsenault and Nancy Delahunt -- of the remarkable juggernaut that won five Canadian women's curling championships in six years from 1999-2004.
Making their first return to this event together since 2006, they will tell you the scores of their games have been misleading, they've been closer than the final numbers would suggest. They'll point out they had a gruelling early schedule that included games against two of the pre-event favourites -- Canada and Manitoba. They'll tell you they still hope to be playing when the playoffs begin on Saturday.
Maybe they really believe all that, too. But if they do, the only ones this grand old Nova Scotia team are still kidding is themselves.
The reality is this team is very old to be curling at an elite level -- Arseneault, Kelly and Jones have an average age of 49; and they're playing out of position -- Jones, a lifelong skip, is throwing second stones and sweeping while Arsenault, a longtime second and formerly one of the game's premier sweepers, is throwing skip rocks and not sweeping at all. Delahunt, the longtime lead, is now the alternate, making way for a raw rookie in Jennifer Baxter,
Put it all together and the only surprise here this week, really, is not that they're losing, but rather why they're doing this at all.
The explanation from Jones is after a lifetime of collecting Canadian championships -- she has a record six of them -- she's collecting something different these days after a health scare last year -- she had a meningitis infection -- gave her a new perspective on things.
"I don't think in life you have to measure success in wins and losses. I think life is measured in experiences," says Jones, 53, "and this experience is priceless in so many ways. You can't have had the health bump that I had and think that you'd never be back at something like this and then be mad that you're here and you're not winning...
"There are thousands of other curlers who'd love to be out here doing what we're doing. (You) just keep plugging along at every step and try to savour it. There's lots of life lessons you can learn on a curling rink."
Alas, those lessons aren't always readily apparent. Take Monday's loss to Manitoba, for instance, in which a tight 4-4 game turned into a debacle for Nova Scotia when Arsenault flashed on her final stone of the seventh end and gave Manitoba an open draw for a back-breaking four-ender.
"I was ready to crawl into a hole," Arsenault reflected afterward, "but there were no holes to be found, so I had to stay out there."
It all begged the obvious question here Monday: If you'd known it was going to be like this, would you have still chosen to run this race again?
"The results aren't fun," said Arsenault, "but we're enjoying the ride."