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    Thursday, February 19, 1998

    Pure prairie gold

    By TOM BRENNAN -- Team Sun
      The best part of it all?
     C'mon, we didn't even have to ask.
     Nor did Sandra Schmirler have to answer.
     She simply pointed -- at the gold medal Joan McCusker was posing with for pictures from fellow passengers.
     Even with shouldering all the pressure of a team supposed to win, their whole Olympic experience -- including that terrifying, extra-end semi-final -- culminating in the first gold medal awarded in the sport, was all Schmirler the Curler's Canadian foursome could've asked for.
     "It was a huge show, bigger than anything I ever dreamt it would be," Schmirler said during a brief stopover in Calgary on the way home to Regina yesterday.
     "Everything and more," declared second McCusker, flashing a curling rock-sized grin. "We had a wonderful place in Karuizawa, absolutely the best Olympic village there. In Nagano, the accommodation wasn't as great, but we got to meet so many of the athletes. And they were all wonderfully friendly.
     "And it was just so neat to be walking down the hallway and say 'Hi Wayne', and Wayne Gretzky's saying `Hi, how you guys doing?' It really was (like that)."
     Schmirler concurred.
     "When you win a championship that you're expected to, that's really satisfying. But probably the neatest part is meeting the other athletes representing Canada in various sports."
     In fact, after wrapping up their business, the Schmirler rink -- including third Jan Betker, lead Marcia Gudereit and fifth player Atina Ford -- were out lending their support to the rest of them.
     "We got to see the Canada-US men's hockey," Schmirler said. "We saw Bourne and Kraatz. Awesome."
     Boo the judges?
     "No comment," she replied. "And we got to see the final of the women's hockey. Heartbreaking."
     "I would love to go again in four years," nodded McCusker. "But right at this moment, the only thing I can think about is going home to my kids. I miss 'em incredibly."
     Admittedly in "that cranky zone" now that adrenalin's been overcome by fatigue, McCusker was still expecting "the greatest homecoming of all time."
     Or at least since the Riders won in '89.
     "I was pretty excited when they won that Grey Cup, so I can imagine how people feel," she laughed.
     Then, after one whole day's rest, they begin defence of their Canadian title at the Scott Tournament of Hearts, mercifully being held in Regina.
     "I'm going to spend all day with my daughter (five-month-old Sarah), I'm not taking her out of my sight. Then we're back in the pot on Saturday," said Schmirler, a three-time national champ. "The way the team is, we'll be fine. Who knows what'll happen, but we'll play as hard as we can.
     As for McCusker's medal, "I think it goes to kindergarten tomorrow with my son, Rory," she said. "People talk about putting it in cases and such, but I have a huge family and tons of close friends, and I can't see this getting put away. It's going to get touched and banged up and nicked. I can see it being passed around."
     Schmirler's will hang on Sarah's crib for the next month.
     "She had to sacrifice as much as I did. She didn't know it, that's all," said her mom. "So it's hers."
     And with that, to a round of applause, they got on the plane.