Thrust into media spotlight

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 12:19 PM ET

Amazing what a little Olympic notoriety will do for you, even for someone from small-town Minnesota who takes part in a fringe sport most Americans don't know the first thing about.

Take Bemidji's Cassie Johnson, skip of the U.S. team for the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, next month.

In Winnipeg to take on Team Canada's Shannon Kleibrink in an exhibition at noon today, Johnson's schedule looks more like that of a rock star or fashion model than a curler.

Friday it was a photo shoot with People magazine, who flew a crew into Winnipeg from New York to shoot Johnson and Co. at the Asham Arena.

Tomorrow, they're off to the Big Apple, first-class all the way, for a whirlwind media tour with their sponsor, the Bank of America. No word yet on whether it'll be Letterman or Conan.

In a couple of weeks it's The Today Show, which is sending a crew to Bemidji.

PREFERS BACKGROUND

It's been this way for the better part of the last 11 months, ever since Team Johnson & Johnson (her sister Jamie is the vice-skip) booked its trip to Turin by winning the U.S. women's championship.

"I'm not used to being in the spotlight at all," Johnson, the skip, was saying yesterday. "I prefer to be more in the background, just doing what I do."

What she does is shoot the lights out and call a mean game for a team that won a silver medal at the last world championship. That's right, the Yanks have more to show for their recent work in women's curling than our home and native land, as Winnipeg's own Jennifer Jones was shut out at the Scotland worlds.

It's not like the average Joe knows these gals on the street, though. This is, after all, still curling in the States, where you get the most bizarre responses when people find out what you do.

"There's occasionally some people who have no idea," Jamie said. "They say, 'Is it like lifting weights?' "

Or they'll offer up a real knee-slapper about the curling iron the girls must use.

UNCLEAR ON THE CONCEPT

Even the People magazine folks were, apparently, a little unclear on the concept.

"They asked, 'So who throws the rocks?'" lead Maureen Brunt said.

The most amazing thing about these daughters of Uncle Sam is how quickly they've had success.

This group is barely out of junior, where it won a world championship in 2002.

Jamie is the oldster, at 25. Cassie is 24, while Brunt, the lead, is 23, and second Jessica Schultz is the youngest at 21.

You think they'd be a little intimidated, then, taking the hack alongside people like Anette Norberg and Dordi Nordby, the curling queens of Sweden and Norway, respectively.

Doesn't seem like it, though, and they can probably credit a few trips to Winnipeg over the years for that.

"I remember the first time we played the JVC Classic in Winnipeg," Brunt recalled. "Cassie and Jamie are like, 'We're playing Connie Laliberte!' And I was, like, 'Who's that?' "

We'll have to forgive Brunt for that. After all, she's from Wisconsin, and didn't see much of the Canuck game growing up.

The Johnsons, though, have always been just a short drive away, and they'll continue to take advantage of it by competing in the MCA women's bonspiel, beginning next weekend.

But first there's this little grudge match with Kleibrink today. OK, grudge match might be a little strong.

BUT IT IS CANADA VS. THE U.S.

"It's an exhibition, but ..." Brunt began.

"We'll probably step it up a little bit," her skip finished. "It just adds a little bit more to it. Canada is considered a powerhouse in curling. You're not just playing that team, but the whole country, it seems.

"I don't think there will be too many people cheering for us."

I guess that's just what a little notoriety will do for you.

Contact Paul at pfriesen@wpgsun.com or 632-2788.


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