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Father and Daughter Make Their Mark on Olympic Curling Team

For coach Wally Henry and captain Debbie McCormick, the sport is a family affair.

Imagine this: It’s a tense moment for the U.S. Women’s Olympic curling team. In front of a crowd of 6,000 in the brand new Vancouver Olympic Centre, American team captain Debbie McCormick, of Rio, Wis., surveys the “stones” arrayed on the ice, and plans her shot.

McCormick and her three broom-wielding teammates discuss the best way for her to slide the granite stone down the ice. The goal is to land it closer than your opponent’s to the center of a 12-foot circle, called “the house.” But depending on how it’s delivered, the stone can curve, or curl—giving the sport its name—so the shot must be carefully considered.

On the bench, the American women’s coach Wally Henry watches intently. The crowd is hushed. This is the stuff curling fans love—the equivalent of bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs.

“There’s a lot of suspense and pressure,” says Colleen Jones, a former two-time world curling champ from Canada, who will be the analyst for NBC during its beefed-up coverage of curling in the Winter Olympics. “It’s a thinking man’s sport … like chess on ice.”

Although the scene is hypothetical, it’s almost certain to occur at some point in the coming two weeks of the Olympic Games. And whatever happens next, what you certainly won’t see is McCormick turning to Coach Henry, and saying:

“Gee, Dad, what do you think we should do now?”

In American curling, the first family this year is the father-daughter, coach-captain team of Wally Henry and Debbie McCormick.

McCormick, 36, will be competing in her third Olympics; her dad, 62, was with her in 2002 as assistant coach for the U.S. women’s team. But their involvement in the sport goes back much further. “I grew up with curling,” McCormick says. “I have a lot of childhood memories of being down at the curling club with other kids, goofing around behind the ice, hiding behind the seats, banging on this old piano they had.”

In the midst of it all was her father, then one of the top players at the Madison Curling Club in Wisconsin. The sport dominates his childhood memories as well.

Curling is a family-oriented endeavor. Those who love the game of stones and brooms (the vigorous sweeping is designed to provide friction ahead of the stone, creating a faster track on the ice) tend to congregate in close-knit curling clubs. Kids start playing young, and the passion for the sport is passed from generation to generation.

“I grew up in a farming community in Manitoba, and we had a small curling club,” Henry recalls. “On Saturday night, the whole family would go down, throw some stones, and that would be the entertainment for the weekend.”

Henry continued to play through school and rose to the national level. In 1977, when he was transferred by his employer to Madison, he brought along his love for curling to a city where, unlike most other parts of the United States, the sport was known and appreciated. He also brought along his children—McCormick, then 3 years old, and her younger brother Donnie. Back then, it was McCormick watching her dad throw the stone—42 pounds of granite with a handle, which vaguely looks like an old-fashioned iron.

Those stones, apparently, didn’t gather much moss, because now it’s McCormick who’s out on the ice, and her dad who is watching. But while the roles have reversed, Henry, or “coach slash dad” as he refers to himself, has not changed his style.

“He’s always positive and encouraging,” McCormick says. “The same way as when I was a kid.”

Having a father coach his children in youth sports, of course, is not uncommon. At the Olympic level, it’s rare. But, say teammates, both McCormick and Coach Henry know how to keep the roles separate, so that you will never hear the team captain interact with her dad, like—well, like he’s her dad.

“There’s Coach Wally, and there’s Dad Wally,” says Olympic teammate Nicole Joraanstad. “They do a great job of keeping the roles separate.”

The close relationship between Henry and McCormick was cemented through a family tragedy: In 1989, when McCormick was 15, her mother, Henry’s wife Ginny, died. “Amazingly it brought us closer as a family,” Henry says. “My two children grew up a lot out of that, and really helped take care of their dad through the emotional stress.”

Affable Henry is, as they say in the Midwest, “good people,” and it’s no surprise he and his daughter have gravitated to a sport that emphasizes good sportsmanship (it’s one of the few sports where teams shake hands before, as well as after, a competition). Unlike coaches in most other sports, however, curling’s are quiet and low profile; communicating with their players while the game is in progress is against the rules.

Coach Henry seems to like it that way. “You won’t see me much on TV, and that’s fine,” he says, laughing.

Actually, the chance of seeing Henry, McCormick and the other men’s and women’s curling Olympians is much greater this year NBC is planning to devote extensive coverage to the sport during its Olympic telecast—building on the viewership of the 2006 Torino Games during which, the network reports, 37 million viewers watched curling (compared with the 27 million on average who will watch an episode of American Idol).

That’s a lot of people watching a father and his daughter play a game that’s been their bond since childhood. And while McCormick is a big girl, it’s still nice to know that dad is in her corner.

“To represent your country in the Olympics … sometimes I want to pinch myself to make sure it’s not a dream,” McCormick says. “And as a daughter, to have my dad there and such a big part of our team … it’s amazing.”

John Hanc writes frequently about health and fitness for the AARP Bulletin and Bulletin Today.

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