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MOOSE JAW, Sask. — This is a week to celebrate curling, but also a week to celebrate women and all that they bring and have brought to the game. It's bittersweet, sometimes, if only because it feels rare: ten days of writing about, thinking about, revelling in the thrills and heartbreaks of women's stories, and their stories alone.
So what better week for Curling Canada to launch a new initiative aimed at raising women in curling even further than at the national women's championship?
On Wednesday, at a hotel just across Moose Jaw's downtown from where the rocks roar at Mosaic Place for the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, about 40 participants gathered together for a two-day symposium, the start of what the organization is aiming to become an ongoing women's leadership circle.
The event, enabled by a Sport Canada grant, had multiple focuses. On one hand, it offered a chance for Curling Canada to hear what women in various positions across curling needed in terms of support for their professional development; it also provided seminars on everything from emotional intelligence to sweeping.
The assembled group included some of the most accomplished athletes of their eras, such as Olympic champion Jill Officer and 2011 Canadian champion Amber Holland. It also included some of the next generation of curling leaders: young women who will, sooner rather than later, be guiding the sport's trajectory at home and abroad.
"We’ve got really great women curlers," Curling Canada executive director Katherine Henderson says, chatting during the symposium's lunch break Thursday afternoon. "But one place that you see in sport there’s quite a bit of a deficit is in the support: the coaching, officials, technical people.
"For a lot of women, we want to make sure there are career opportunities for them at an equal level as well. Those things are all coming together."
It's not a coincidence this symposium launched the same year as Curling Canada moved to equalize prize payouts at the national competitions, boosting the Scotties purse to the same $300,000 figure as the Brier. That was a huge boost from the $165,000 divvied up, based on placement, between 16 Scotties teams in 2019.
"We’ve got really great women curlers but one place that you see in sport there’s quite a bit of a deficit is in the support: the coaching, officials, technical people." – Curling Canada executive director Katherine Henderson
The equalization was a long-overdue move, widely applauded by curlers. It comes in a sport where TV ratings for some Scotties draws equal or even surpass those of the Brier. It also comes in one of the few sports where arguably its most recognizable star and widely known name belongs to a woman, Winnipeg's Jennifer Jones.
Which is partly a way to say that curling, to its credit, has far better gender parity than many sports, and certainly more than any major team sport one can name. National women's coach Elaine Dagg-Jackson, one of the main organizers of the symposium, points out that the women's team has had a female coach since 1990.
"Curling’s always been a leader with that," she says. "But there haven’t always been a lot of other places where women could find a role. Now, women are aspiring to be in more influential positions. I think they’ve always done what they loved, but now they’re saying we need bright lights, we need some new blood in the system."
The benefit of having more women in those positions is more than merely symbolic. Across the globe, the sport is in the midst of a remarkable transformation, as Olympic funding flows to developing teams from non-traditional curling nations. It's an arms race, and a game once mostly played as an art is now being fine-tuned by science.
"Having female coaches being able to coach females, there’s a little bit more of a connection there, a little bit more of an understanding of how females work." – Jill Officer, former Jones second
So questions such as how to brush, whether to use one sweeper or two, whether it's maximally beneficial to use a slider while sweeping: all of these can make the millimetres of difference that separates winning and losing. What is more, evidence and player testimony suggests best practices may not be identical between men and women.
Take draw weight, for instance. With men, long time former Jones second Jill Officer explains, the window of successful draw weight can be wider; their sweepers have the upper-body strength to make a more dramatic impact on the ice. Women have to be more technically precise to have the same success.
As a result, some female curlers have noticed some male coaches tend to be slightly more lenient on issues of technique, not entirely accustomed to how much more critical it is for women's teams. Female coaches may have a more experiential understanding, and women in leadership roles may help ensure support is tailored.
"I’ve always said that dealing with a women’s curling team is very different from dealing with a men’s curling team, from a few different aspects," Officer says. "Having female coaches being able to coach females, there’s a little bit more of a connection there, a little bit more of an understanding of how females work."
Throughout the two days, the discussions in the sessions were collaborative and lively. On Thursday morning, a spirited discussion broke out about brushing, with curlers sharing what they'd experienced. To make space for a focused discussion of that is exactly what organizers were aiming for.
"It’s built out of the energy in the room, which is what I hoped from the beginning," Dagg-Jackson says. "If you bring these kind of people together, amazing things will happen. At the end of these two days we’ll say, OK, off you go, from St. Johns to Victoria. Show us what you can do, and we’ll be watching.'"
The plan now is for the participants at this year's summit to stay in touch, to continue building a network to support their own development as leaders and the women's game as a whole. Henderson says Curling Canada hopes for more summits like this in the future, if funding allows.
"I think that this is a really good start to bring all of these women together," says Officer, who this season coached Tracy Fleury's squad from Manitoba. "I’m happy to have these connections now, given where I’m at in my transition out of elite play and trying to stay close to the game. I think this has been really great for me to see what’s going on."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.