‘Rocking it’ on her own terms Age furthest thing from Jones' mind as she pursues curling gold in Beijing

It’s been a few days since Jennifer Jones landed in Beijing, and so far her Olympics has been beautiful and strange. Beautiful in that the venues are “perfect,” she says; strange in the daily PCR tests, the being surrounded by people after two months in near-isolation, and the time she lowered her N95 mask to take a sip of water and the robot drove by to chastise her.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/02/2022 (193 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It’s been a few days since Jennifer Jones landed in Beijing, and so far her Olympics has been beautiful and strange. Beautiful in that the venues are “perfect,” she says; strange in the daily PCR tests, the being surrounded by people after two months in near-isolation, and the time she lowered her N95 mask to take a sip of water and the robot drove by to chastise her.

Wait, just to be clear: did she just say she got reprimanded by a robot?

“It’s funny, because I was like ‘oh, there’s a robot,’ and I wanted to take a video for my kids,” Jones says, chatting from her room in Beijing’s Olympic Village. “It saw me, and it stopped, and it said ‘please put your mask over your nose.’ So I put it back on, it takes another look at me and, whoosh, robot’s off. I was like, ‘oh my God, how can it tell?’”

Michael Burns Photo / Curling Canada files
At 47, Jennifer Jones has become the oldest Canadian female winter Olympian.

So that’s a quintessentially 2022 story, a jumble of surveillance technology, epidemiology and elite sport. But that’s not what I called to talk about, a few days before she leads her team onto the ice Thursday in Beijing. What was on my mind was more about Jones, and a new record she’s set, and the way it’s been talked about. Or, for lack of a better phrase: the age thing.

“Oh yeah,” she says. “You know, it’s kind of funny.”

What’s funny, she explains, is that other people are thinking about it more than she ever has.

Even before she’d walked out of the arena at the Olympic trials in Saskatoon, media were proclaiming her curious new place in history: at 47, she had become the oldest Canadian female winter Olympian, edging just past fellow Manitoba-born curler Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie, who was 46 when she earned silver in 2010 playing second for Cheryl Bernard.

And if Jones reaches the podium in Beijing — it will take a battle to get there, in this field — she will be the oldest woman to earn a medal in any Olympic winter sport, for any nation, ever. There’s something about those milestones that feels right, in a way: after collecting one of everything there is to win in her sport, an endurance prize or two seems deserving.

And if Jones reaches the podium in Beijing– it will take a battle to get there, in this field – she will be the oldest woman to earn a medal in any Olympic winter sport, for any nation, ever.

But the skip herself hadn’t really thought about it. In fact, she only learned about it from reporters, minutes after her victory over Tracy Fleury in the trials final. It threw her, a bit: it’s not like she was walking around with her own age at the top of her mind. Even when she decided to play this quadrennial, the calculation was simpler than counting birthdays.

“I just wasn’t ready to retire,” she says. “I felt like I was still getting better.”

As the weeks passed, the age thing came up, again and again. Jones doesn’t love it, she says. It’s not that she’s uncomfortable talking about it, not that she wants to keep it quiet. It’s more that time, as everyone learns, passes by in a flash, and there are days when she, like everyone over a certain age, looks at the number and thinks: wait, when did that happen?

“Honestly, I still feel like I’m in my 30s, from a number of aspects,” she says. “I still feel like I just came on the curling scene. That’s the hardest thing for me. When I talk about it it’s a reminder that we are getting older, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s part of life and you can’t stop it. What you can do is live every second of life to the fullest.”

So she wasn’t sure how to respond at first, when reporters brought it up; her husband, Brent Laing, had some thoughts.

“Brent says, ‘Own it, you should be so proud of it, you’re rocking it,’” she says. So she is.

RICK ELVIN / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES
“I still feel like I just came on the curling scene. That’s the hardest thing for me. When I talk about it it’s a reminder that we are getting older, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Jennifer Jones.

Because there’s value in rocking it, that’s the thing. When an athlete walks onto the world stage, they are carrying their entire life’s story with them: Jones is a curler, a lawyer, a mother of two young daughters. She is also, at 47, a fresh example of what is possible for women, and of how some of the stories we’re told about our limits are no more binding than fiction.

“I feel like in that generation we grew up in, once you hit a certain age it was treated like you were middle-aged and that was it,” she says. “But I feel like now everybody’s focused on more on overall well-being, and health, and staying young and active. And that’s a great thing. They say 40 is the new 30, which I truly believe.

“Even a lot more women are becoming moms in their 40s now. I think society’s views are changing on all of that as well.”

“But I feel like now everybody’s focused on more on overall well-being, and health, and staying young and active. And that’s a great thing. They say 40 is the new 30, which I truly believe.” – Jennifer Jones

That’s a precious example to set in sport, which for the most part is the domain of the young. (Overheard on an Olympic figure skating broadcast this week, for instance, was an announcer introducing a skater as “the veteran, at 21 years old.”)

It’s been done before: Olympic history is sprinkled with athletes competing well into their 40s, and in a handful of cases their 60s and 70s, mostly in events such as equestrian, shooting and, yes, curling. (One exception: eight-time Olympian, Uzbekistan gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, who competed in Tokyo at age 46 and recently rescinded her retirement.)

It helps that curling allows it, in ways other sports don’t: it’s more physical than casual viewers tend to appreciate, but the benefit of raw strength is balanced by the key value of finesse and the mental part of the game. Still, it’s not surprising that Canada’s two oldest-ever winter Olympians are both men’s curlers; Jones will rank third.

But the story here isn’t that curling offers athletes a larger window for peak performance than other sports; it’s that loving the sport expands that window in its top athletes. There’s no shortage of curlers who are reluctant to retire: just look at 59-year-old Glenn Howard. And look at what it means to Jones to keep playing, keep learning, keep trying.

“It’s kept me young,” she says. “It’s kept me energized and excited and driven and focused and always chasing a dream. I’ve lived my life doing that. It feels like it’s just been a few years, but it’s been a lot longer than that. It’s been joyful and fun, and hard in the same breath. But I’ve always found a way to get through it.”

“It feels like it’s just been a few years, but it’s been a lot longer than that. It’s been joyful and fun, and hard in the same breath. But I’ve always found a way to get through it.” – Jennifer Jones

This is the part where one athlete’s story becomes about something greater than herself. Because for Jones, the light leading her forward has always been curling; but that experience could be about anything. Most of us will never go to an Olympics at any age, but we can all find our own constant spark to make our tomorrows even better than our todays.

Someday, when it’s time to reflect, the full story of what Jones gave to her sport will be written. She was an inspiration for a generation of curlers. The face of a sport at the juncture it needed one. A bridge between the folksy, grassroots game curling has been, to the glossier spotlight event it is becoming. She wore the role well, and always took it seriously.

In Beijing, she has a chance now to represent something new. Not only a nation this time, but also a chapter in one’s life, and a refusal to walk away on any terms but her own. And if fans are to take anything from the second Olympic quest of Jennifer Jones, then let it be a story about joy, about perseverance, and about never letting go of the things that you love.

CP
JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES
“There’s truly nothing we can’t accomplish if we set our mind to it, and age is truly just a number,” says Jennifer Jones.

“There’s truly nothing we can’t accomplish if we set our mind to it, and age is truly just a number,” she says. “Even if you’re younger and people say you can’t do something because you don’t have this, that or the next thing, it’s all a mindset. We can convince ourselves we can do anything.

“When people tell you you’re too old to do something, you can prove them wrong… And I believe women are evolving, and conquering and finding ways to achieve despite odds. Despite historical definitions of how we could succeed or limitations we have, we find ways to do it anyway. And I think that’s incredible.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

History

Updated on Wednesday, February 9, 2022 1:01 AM CST: Corrects spelling of McRorie.

Updated on Wednesday, February 9, 2022 6:57 AM CST: Fixes typo in deck

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