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    Sunday, February 15, 1998

    Schmirler happy pressure's gone

    By CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun
    KARUIZAWA -- It had the feeling of a job, a job that was well done no doubt, but a job none the less.
      The feeling when it was over was one more of relief than joy, the feeling Canada's Sandra Schmirler rink enjoyed early this morning after capturing the first women's gold medal in curling.
      Relief, because they entered the Olympic bonspiel as prohibitive favorites and the favorite's yoke had not rested lightly on some Canadians' shoulders at these Games.
      Freestyle skier Jean-Luc Brassard fell to it and the distraction, he said, of carrying the flag at the Opening Ceremonies.
      Snowboarder Mark Fawcett wiped out in snowboarding.
      An injury did in world champion Elvis Stojko at the figure skating, though his silver medal, in the face of what he did in agony, shines as brightly as gold.
      Some would say this would be the easiest gold medal ever won at the Olympics and that in itself brought its own pressure.
      "We knew if we played our best, we would win. We just tried not to think about the outcome of each shot, tried to put it out of our brains that the outcome of the shot means the title," said second Joan McCusker, whose key triple take out in the ninth sealed the win.
      "Before I came here, I spent a lot of time talking at schools and I would say to the kids, 'name an emotion, any emotion, and I'm feeling it,'"
      "This is the only time in your life you can say that. When you win, you feel elation and gratification and underneath it all there's relief, a feeling of 'Thank God, the weight is off.'
      "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, there was pressure on us from the media and from family."
      There were tears afterward and a mini-wave when the four of them lined up, bowed at the waist and saluted the small, polite crowd.
      Schmirler, of Biggar, Sask., and her rink of lead Marcia Gudereit of Hudson Bay, Sask., McCusker of Saltcoats, Sask., third Jan Betker of Regina and alternate Atina Ford of Gray, Sask., were winners in a no-win situation, adding a touch of gold glitter to an already sparkling trophy case.
      "We're really close friends," said Schmirler, "it's almost a sister relationship. To be able to play with your best friends is almost the best feeling on Earth."
      Schmirler, a three-time world champion, scored a 7-5 win over the surprising Danish rink of Helena Blach Lavrsen, claiming Canada's third gold medal of the XXVIII Winter Games.
      The feeling in the Kazakoshi Park Arena was one of the inevitable about to happen, devoid of suspense or electricity, the feeling more of a friendly game on a Sunday afternoon at the Caledonian Curling Club, especially after Schmirler scored three in the first end.
      The lone moment of tension for the Canadians came in the eighth end with Canada up 6-4. Schmirler rejected a double takeout that could have scored three, opting for a tap back for one.
      But her shot was heavy and her yellow stone went long, making it look like the Danes has stolen one to make it 6-5.
      But a measurement showed the Canadian stone was shot rock and Canada instead went into the ninth with a 7-4 lead.
      Despite the loss, the Danes could take pride in the fact they had claimed their country's first-ever Olympic Winter Games medal, making front page news across their homeland.
      There is only one curling rink in Denmark and just 500 curlers.
      The Blach Havrsen rink has to often share ice with hockey teams or go to Sweden to practice.
      Schmirler got off to a great start, counting three in the first end, and never looked back.
      Blach Lavrsen's rink caught a break when they wrecked on a guard but wound up with shot rock, but Canadian third Jan Betker made a nice raise to erase the problem.
      Schmirler then played a hit and roll behind cover to leave Canada lying two and Blach Lavrsen froze to those two with her last rock. She left it hanging out just a little far, however, and Schmirler played a delicate chip which removed the Danish stone and allowed the Canadians to count three, leaving Schmirler with a big smile on her face while she pumped her right fist in the air.
      The Danes came back with a pair in the second end when Blach Lavrsen drew to the button with last rock.
      After blanking the third end, Schmirler's crisply executed double raise takeout in the fourth pushed Canada's lead to 4-2 and they stole another one in the fifth when Blach Lavrsen failed to hit and stick with last rock.
      One of the big reasons for Canada's lead through five was second Joan McCusker outduelling her opposite number with Danes, Dorthe Holm, by 88% to 74%.
      It was a nice comeback by McCusker, who had struggled a bit in the seminfinal win over Great Britain.
      Canada added to its lead with a steal of one in the sixth when Blach Lavrsen failed on a cold draw for one, leaving the Canadian stone biting the four-foot as the counter.