Olympic anniversary: "Schmirler the Curler" wins gold in curling's Olympic return

Canadian curler Sandra Schmirler at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics

NBC Olympics.com - If Sandra Schmirler had never participated in an Olympic competition, she still would have been remembered as one of the curling greats. "Schmirler the Curler," as she was affectionately known, dominated the curling world throughout the 90's, winning the world championship title three times and collecting five medals, three of them gold, at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts (Canada's women's curling championship)-all before making her trip to the 1998 Nagano Games.  

"She was the world's greatest curler, there's no doubt about it," former Canadian curler Anne Merklinger told The Globe and Mail after Schmirler's death. "But she was more than that. She was pretty special to all of us."

As the reigning world champions, Schmirler, Jan Betker, Joan McCusker and Marcia Gudereit came into the Games as the heavy favorites to win the inaugural Olympic gold in women's curling. 

However, Schmirler endured heavy competition just to qualify for the Nagano Games. Two months after giving birth to her first child, Schmirler and her rink earned a slim victory over the team skipped by Shannon Klebrink at the Canadian Olympic Curling Trials to win an Olympic berth. Klebrink would eventually guide the Canadian women to a bronze medal at the 2006 Torino Olympics. 

Less than a year removed from her third world championships victory, the birth of her first daughter and a nail-biting Canadian qualifier, Schmirler found herself on the biggest stage her sport had seen in its 400-year history.

After a 74-year hiatus from the medal count and three appearances as a demonstration sport, curling made its return as an official sport on the Olympic program at Nagano. At the time, however, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) hadn't yet recognized curling's appearance at the 1924 Chamonix Winter Olympics as official, making 1998 curling's long-awaited Olympic debut. The IOC retroactively declared the 1924 curling competition to be official in 2006 after a Scottish newspaper filed a claim on behalf of the athletes' families. 

But at the 1924 Winter Games, only men's teams participated in the curling tournament. Schmirler and the Canadian women had the opportunity to become the first women ever to win curling gold at the Olympics.

After dominating the round-robin stage with six wins and one loss, Schmirler's rink battled neck-and-neck with Great Britain in the semifinals.  After the Canadians took a 5-4 lead in the eighth end, the British women fought back and tied the score in the ninth end. In the tenth and final end, Schmirler withstood the pressure and successfully threw her final rock to the eight-foot circle, winning the match 6-5 and advancing to the gold medal game.

In the final, the Canadian team never fell behind, defeating Denmark 7-5 in nine ends to earn gold. Schmirler left Nagano with a 79% shot percentage, higher than any other skip in the Games. When she returned to Canada, over a thousand people were waiting at the Regina International Airport to welcome their national hero home. Her rink was named "Team of the Year" by the Canadian Press and Schmirler was inducted in to the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame in 1999.

''When you played her, you were in awe,'' Colleen Jones, two-time Canadian champion, told The Globe and Mail just after her death. ''You knew she was better. You knew she was going to beat you. It was like playing against Gretzky.''   

Not long after the birth of her second child in June 1999, Schmirler discovered that the back and stomach pains she'd assumed were side effects of her pregnancy were actually due to a cancerous tumor in her chest cavity. Her fans around the country raised money to help pay for her treatment and show their support. 

In March 2000, less than a year after she was diagnosed, Schmirler passed away at age 36. 

The Prime Minister  of Canada released a statement after her death:

All Canadians have been touched by the untimely death of Sandra Schmirler. Most of us came to know her through her exploits as a champion curler and as an exemplary sports ambassador for Canada. But what really set her apart was her bright, engaging personality and her incredible zest for life, qualities that were so clearly in evidence as she fought so valiantly against her illness. She will be sorely missed.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Schmirler received several awards posthumously, including an induction into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame as well as the World Curling Federation Hall of Fame. At the Scotties Tournament of Hearts, the award for the top player in the tournament was renamed the "Sandra Schmirler Most Valuable Player Award."  

In 2001, the Sandra Schmirler Foundation was created in her honor to help save sick newborn babies. The aid has contributed millions of dollars to more than 40 Canadian hospitals, according to the charitable body.

Recently, the oldest daughter of the "Queen of Curling" has stepped into the spotlight for playing the sport that runs through her blood. 20-year-old Sara England, who has her father's last name, competed in the Canadian junior curling championships in 2017.  "People say I sound like my mom on the ice …my dad says there's a lot of similarities between us when I curl," England said to The Times Colonist.

"I can still get the better of [Sara]," Shannon England, Schmirler's husband and Sara's dad, told The Canadian Press in 2015. "Her mother always beat me. It's kind of fun now, but I don't think it will last much longer. I probably won't have a chance in a year or two."

"I guess I'm destined to watch the women in my life curl."

The 2018 Olympics will be the 20th anniversary of Schmirler's Olympic gold at Nagano.

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