Curling in Lawes’ blood

One win away from Olympic medal

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GANGNEUNG, Korea — She’s been throwing rocks since she was too little to lift one.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/02/2018 (1687 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GANGNEUNG, Korea — She’s been throwing rocks since she was too little to lift one.

She won her first junior zone playdown at a prodigious 13 years old. Her first Canadian junior title came six years later at 19. Another came the next year at 20. And then there was Olympic gold at 25.

Along the way, there have been tens of thousands of shots thrown and swept, and there will be still more before she’s done here this week.

AP Canada's Kaitlyn Lawes flashes the thumbs-up sign after winning against Finland during their mixed doubles curling match at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

With a berth in Monday’s semifinals of the first mixed doubles curling event at the Winter Olympics, Winnipeg’s Kaitlyn Lawes is just one win away from becoming a two-time Olympic medallist. She’s just two more wins away from becoming that rarest of amateur athlete, a two-time Olympic gold medallist.

But before we find out where Lawes is going, we need to find out where she’s been. And that story is about one special rock that both started it all and ended it all.

It is the rock that both haunts and inspires Lawes to this day. And it is the one, above all, that she wishes had never been thrown.

Back to 2000

It was December, 2000, and I was covering the annual Junior Christmas Bonspiel when Keith Lawes approached me.

I knew Lawes as a competitive curler in his day, but mostly I knew him as one of those guys who always seemed to be at whatever curling club I walked into, either working as a volunteer at an event or coaching one of the many junior teams in town.

The guy loved the game. And the guy loved Kaitlyn, who was 12 at that time but was already skipping her own team.

“You know,” Lawes said to me that day, “you should do a story on my daughter.”

“Keith,” I replied, “I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a parent tell me that.”

Lawes was undeterred. “Yeah, I know. But my daughter is really good.”

I just laughed. “They all say that, Keith.”

The difference, of course, is that not everybody’s daughter is Kaitlyn Lawes. And neither is every parent Keith Lawes.

Born in Montreal, Lawes had lived and worked in three provinces when he finally settled for good in a fourth, Manitoba, in 1986 after being transferred by his employer, a trust company, from Ottawa to Winnipeg.

Just two years later, he’d be laid off just as his wife, Cheryl, was giving birth to Kaitlyn. Out of work in his 50’s, the family decided Keith would stay home and raise Kaitlyn and her brother, Kevin, while Cheryl went back to work.

And with that, a very special father-daughter relationship was born. The two, Kaitlyn and Keith, were inseparable, as Cheryl Lawes recalled here this weekend.

“He was Mr. Mom. Kaitlyn wasn’t even a year old when he came home. And they did everything together, right from the very beginning,” said Cheryl.

Their tightest bond came through a common love of sports generally — and curling in particular.

Aaron Favila / The Associated Press Canada's Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris reacts after winning their mixed doubles curling match against South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018.

It was familiar ground for Keith Lawes, who had already raised one daughter before Kaitlyn to be a high performance curler. Andrea Lawes, Kaitlyn’s much older half-sister, won four Ontario women’s titles and was the 1990 Canadian women’s champion as second for Alison Goring.

Maybe it was nature or maybe it was nurture but whatever it was, Keith Lawes seemed to have a knack for getting the best out of his children.

One daughter as a Canadian champion could be a fluke. But two? That would be an unmistakable pattern.

Family tragedy

Tragically, Keith Lawes wouldn’t live to see Kaitlyn’s greatest successes.

On Nov. 3, 2007, Lawes died at the age of 70 of glioblastoma, the same form of brain cancer that killed Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie.

An active curler and coach until the end, the Lawes family decided there was only one fitting end for a guy who had given so much, including two daughters, to a sport he loved.

And so they contacted curlers David and Dennis Bohn. The identical twin brothers are perhaps best known for losing the 2008 Manitoba men’s final to Kerry Burtnyk, but in their other line of work they are the proprietors of Larsen’s Memorials.

And Cheryl Lawes had a very special job for them. “We really wanted as a family for Keith to get back to the curling club one last time and to be on the ice one last time.

“And so we contacted the Bohns and had them hollow out a curling stone for us. We put Keith’s ashes inside, put a plaque with his name on the stone and we had a handle attached.

“And then I hired a bagpiper and we went to the Pembina Curling Club.”

I will let Kaitlyn tell the story from there. “My Dad used to coach the Bohns and they really made that stone beautiful for him. The piper piped the whole family out.

“And then we threw my Dad down the ice,” Lawes said quietly, ”one more time.”

It was one of those life-altering moments that Kaitlyn both cannot forget and cannot remember. “I think I swept,” she told me late last month when I asked about it. “But to be honest, that whole day is a blur.”

In fact, Cheryl Lawes says Kaitlyn held the broom that day, not unlike she’s done thousands of times since — and completely unlike she’s done thousands of times since.

Xxx

Aaron Favila / The Associated Press Canada's Kaitlyn Lawes and John Morris prepare to throw the stone during their mixed doubles curling match against South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018.

While that was Keith Lawes’ last rock, it was also in many ways Kaitlyn’s first.

A month after her father made his way down the ice at the Pembina for one final time, Kaitlyn won her first provincial junior curling championship. A month after that, she won her first Canadian junior title. And a month after that she won bronze at the worlds.

She’d repeat that sequence all over again a year later in 2010, this time finishing with silver at the worlds.

And with that, a star was born. By the late spring of 2010, she would take over from Cathy Overton-Clapham as third for Jennifer Jones’s powerhouse in what was surely the most controversial personnel move in Manitoba curling history.

It wasn’t a seamless transition. A Jones team that had won the previous three consecutive Canadian women’s titles with Overton-Clapham at third struggled to get over the top with Lawes on the back end, losing Canadian finals in 2011 and 2013 and settling for bronze in 2012.

But then came Sochi. When it mattered most, the foursome found their game and their chemistry that winter, memorably winning the right to represent Canada on home ice in Winnipeg at the 2013 Canadian Curling Trials and then running the table in Sochi to become the first women’s team ever to go undefeated at the Olympic curling event.

It was all enormously satisfying for a young woman who had devoted more than most at getting better than most at one thing.

But there was also, of course, someone missing.

It struck me watching Lawes over the past decade that the tears of joy she’d always shed after all those curling triumphs always seemed tinged with sadness too.

She broke down in 2008 when I asked her after that Canadian juniors win if it was made bittersweet by the absence of her father.

She broke down on the ice again in Winnipeg in 2013 when I asked her again about her father after that big Trials win.

And if you think the passage of time has made things any easier for her, just know that her eyes welled with tears again just last month when I asked her to recall that day the family sent Keith Lawes down the ice one final time.

If you’re wondering why this story about Kaitlyn Lawes has just two quotes from Kaitlyn Lawes in it, that’s why. You want to know how she reconciles her greatest triumphs with her most painful memory, you ask her. I’m done doing that to the woman.

I asked Cheryl Lawes if that is the tragedy of this whole thing: that the more Kaitlyn Lawes triumphs at curling, the more pain she feels that the man who set her on this path could not be here to witness it.

“She’s had so much success that he hasn’t been a part of. And I think that’s what is still so fresh and so raw for her,” Cheryl told me, her own eyes welling with tears as we sat chatting in the stands at the Gangeung Curling Centre prior to the start of Sunday’s final round-robin draw.

“I don’t know if painful is the word I’d use. But there is definitely a piece in her heart that aches for the fact he couldn’t be here sitting with me and watching her.”

Aaron Favila / The Associated Press Canada's Kaitlyn Lawes sweeps ice during their mixed doubles curling match against South Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018.

And yet, he also is here at the 2018 Winter Olympics, in a way.

Cheryl Lawes wears her late husband’s watch. It was handed down to him by his father and someday it will be handed down to Kaitlyn.

On the back of the watch are the initials LKL. Those are Keith Lawes’ initials — his full name was Leslie Keith Lawes. Those are also Kaitlyn’s initials — her full name is Leslie Kaitlyn Lawes.

They named Kaitlyn, you see, after her father. They had a special connection right from the start.

And here’s something else — Keith Lawes made sure Kaitlyn had Olympic gold in her life long before anyone knew what or who Kaitlyn would become.

During the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, Cheryl says her husband bought a special gold commemorative Olympic coin to mark both those Games being held in Canada that year and the fact it was also the same year Keith and Cheryl had their daughter together.

The coin was attached to a chain and Cheryl has worn it around her neck ever since.

Four years ago, Kaitlyn became the second Lawes woman to wear Olympic gold around her neck.

And with two more wins here this week — she would advance, along with partner John Morris, to Tuesday’s gold medal final with a win over Norway in Monday’s semifinal (6:05 pm CT, TSN) — Lawes would add yet another OIympic gold to the family collection.

Keith Lawes was right that day — his daughter is really good.

But you get the feeling she’d give it all back — Olympic gold(s) and all — for one more day with the man.

email: paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

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