Americans hone skills in the 'Peg

TED WYMAN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 12:41 PM ET

Her team was on a whirlwind press tour of New York this week, living the lives of rock stars in the Big Apple, and next month she'll travel to Italy to represent her country at the Olympics.

However, there was nowhere else Cassie Johnson would have rather been yesterday than on the chilly ice surface at Winnipeg's Granite Curling Club.

"The curling and the practice is much more important than all that other stuff," said Johnson, who will skip the American entry at the Winter Olympics in Turin.

"We've told our public relations people to hold off on the media stuff until the Olympics, because we really need to focus on practising right now."

And where better to do that than Winnipeg, a curling Mecca of sorts, which just happens to the site of this week's annual Manitoba Curling Association women's bonspiel?

"It's close to home (Bemidji, Minn.), we don't have to travel too far, and it has great competition," said Johnson, who is joined on the Olympic team by sister Jamie Johnson, Jessica Schultz, Maureen Brunt and fifth Courtney George. The curlers are advised by Winnipeg's Rob Meakin, who will accompany them to Italy as the U.S. Curling Association's athletic development director.

"There are a lot of really great teams up here."

Another top American skip has taken that line of the thinking to the next level.

Gillian Gervais, the defending U.S. junior champion from Bismarck, N.D., actually calls Winnipeg home for much of the year as she attends classes at the University of Manitoba and is a member at Valour Road Curling Club.

"A lot of it was for curling, actually," Gervais said of her decision to go to university north of the border.

"I just knew I'd get more experience playing up here. Out of my class of 400 graduating, I was the only one to come to Canada, but where else are you going to get that kind of (curling) experience other than Winnipeg?"

Gervais, who will compete in the U.S. junior nationals later this month in Duluth, Minn., is using the MCA women's bonspiel as a tuneup, although two of her teammates didn't make it yesterday and her team was crushed 12-1 by Tracey Andries of Valour Road.

The 20-year-old said her team, which includes third Christina Schwartz, second Steph Jensen and lead Steph Sambor, needs all the practice it can get, as all four go to university in different cities -- Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks and Winnipeg.

"We play up here a lot of weekends," she said. "Canada has the best curling, so we're lucky to be so close."

While Canadians are helping her improve, the person Gervais wants to emulate most is Johnson, who at the ripe old age of 24 is already a world women's silver medallist and an Olympian.

"The Olympics are definitely a team goal for us and an individual goal for me," Gervais said.

As for Johnson, this has already been a season to remember, and the Olympics are still a month away.

"It's much busier than I'm used to between curling and media, and I just graduated from school," said Johnson, who studied graphic arts at Bemidji State University.

"It's much different from anything we've ever done before, and we are looking forward to finally getting to the Olympics."

And after that, it will be back to the real world.

"Yeah, as soon as I get back from the Olympics, I'll be looking for a job," she said.


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