For Chicago curler, another chance to rock the Olympics

Chicago curler Ann Swisshelm, who just made the 2014 Olympic team, practices at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park.  (Andrew A. Nelles / For The Chicago Tribune)

Chicago curler Ann Swisshelm, who just made the 2014 Olympic team, practices at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park. (Andrew A. Nelles / Chicago Tribune / November 20, 2013)

There are rocks involved in this story, so the analogy comes right to mind.

Ann Swisshelm had begun to feel a bit like Sisyphus, the accursed guy from ancient mythology who pushed a rock so close to the top of the hill only to have the thing go rolling right back down.

Until last weekend, that is, when a decade of frequently futile pushing brought Swisshelm the desired result: a second chance to compete in the Winter Olympics.

The Chicago curler’s team had finished fourth in 2002 at Salt Lake City. Sure, that was the best finish for U.S. women since curling became a women’s Olympic medal sport in 1998, but fourth still seems the worst place to finish in an event with three medalists.

It wasn’t for Swisshelm.

“It hasn’t eaten at me,” she said. “It was disappointing you weren’t on the podium but also motivating.”

Swisshelm wanted to get back to the Olympics. In the U.S. curling trials for the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, a winner-takes-all proposition, her team twice finished second, losing the 2006 final by one point in overtime.

In this sport where points are scored by sliding rocks across ice into an area called the house, that was like getting soooooooo close to the top of the heap. Or hill.

“Those were the hardest losses,” she said.

They were motivating as well. Swisshelm saw the end of her elite curling career approaching because spending 120 days on the road for the sport every year was becoming too much of a burden. So she decided to put everything into a final effort.

In the summer of 2011, Swisshelm and three other Olympians, Erika Brown, Debbie McCormick and Jessica Schultz, formed a team — known as the Erika Brown “rink” or Team Brown in curling — dedicated not only to making the 2014 U.S. team but to bringing a medal back from Sochi, Russia, in February.

That meant traveling about every other weekend to Toronto, where Brown, who won her first of a record four USA Curling athlete of the year awards a quarter-century ago, lives with her two young children. For Swisshelm, it meant giving up her job again to concentrate on curling.

Success was not immediate. They finished sixth at the U.S. Championships in 2012.

Last season, Team Brown not only won the national title but also finished fourth at the World Championships, earning their country a spot in the 10-team Olympic field. Four teams competed to get that spot in a weeklong U.S. trials that ended Sunday in Fargo, N.D.

After tying for first in the double round-robin phase, Team Brown won the best-of-three playoffs in two straight games. That made Swisshelm, 45, a graduate of Glenbrook North and Drake University, almost certainly the oldest member of Team USA in Sochi.

Only one U.S. women’s winter Olympian, Swisshelm’s 2002 curling teammate Joni Cotten, then 48, has been older than 40.

“This absolutely means more because of the past two trials,” she said.

Swisshelm began curling at Exmoor Country Club in Highland Park, where she still trains, not long after her family moved to Northbrook from Ohio when she was 9. Through high school, her interests were in other sports, especially basketball.

Her competitive curling career started in earnest after college, where she had earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree as a classical theater major.

Swisshelm spent a couple of years working as a non-credited production assistant on feature films being shot in Chicago (including “Backdraft” and “Only the Lonely”) before getting jobs in sales and marketing. She often would call on customers during curling trips in the Midwest.

Curling introduced Swisshelm to her husband of 11 years, Sean Silver. They live in Chicago’s West Town. Swisshelm was USA Curling athlete of the year in 2001. Her first Olympic trials was 1998. She insists this was her last.

“It’s time for the next generation,” she said.

McCormick, 39, of Rio, Wis., and Brown, 40, an Ontario transplant from Madison, Wis., competed in the ’98 Olympics, and McCormick also made the U.S. team in ’02 and ’10. Schultz, 28, of Minneapolis, is a ’06 Olympian.

“This is the opportunity you’ve planned for and trained for but it’s still a little unreal that it happened,” Swisshelm said. “At my age, you can imagine how much I respect this is still possible.”

She isn't too old to rock the Olympics.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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