She's happy supporting ex-rival

STEVE GREEN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Cathy Cunningham is at her 11th Scott Tournament of Hearts, but this one is also a first.

After 10 appearances as a skip or third for Newfoundland and Labrador, the 2003 national women's curling runner-up is the fifth player for Heather Strong here this week.

It puts her in a bit of a no-win situation -- she'll likely play only if one of the regular foursome is injured or ill. Like most of the other fifths, she throws a few rocks on the John Labatt Centre ice after the night draw, just to try to stay sharp.

"It is tough," the 46-year-old said of watching the games. "I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I found I was really nervous at first -- it was like watching my kids.

"Everyone who comes here wants to play, but I came here expecting not to and I hope it stays that way. Those girls play together, they're the mesh and I'm not.

"I'm definitely a cheerleader and I have experience under pressure. I think they want to have that positive feedback and in timeouts, they can look to my experience, expertise, whatever you want to call it."

Cunningham lost this year's provincial final to Strong, who said she had an easy time deciding on her alternate.

"The whole goal for us was to put the best mix forward, so we needed the best fifth player and it was a no-brainer when it came to making the choice," Strong said.

"Cathy gives us peace of mind in that she can play if anyone gets sick and strategy-wise, she's another hat in the ring."

Some people might balk at being just the alternate. Not Cunningham.

"I've had the pleasure of playing in the Hearts and I've had the pleasure of being a volunteer, but I'd never been an alternate, so I jumped at the chance," she said.

The other three times the Hearts has been in southern Ontario, the Rock has finished above .500, making at least a tiebreaker each time. In 1986 at Thompson Arena, Sue Ann Bartlett finished third and Cunningham said the 12-time national participant helped pave the way in Canada's easternmost province.

"She was like my nemesis for 10 years," she said, "and when I was Heather's age, I wanted Sue Ann to leave, but thankfully, she didn't. She forced us to be as good as we could be and she made us want to win that much more.

Last year, the Hearts was in St. John's and Cunningham had another viewpoint. She saw what life was like on the other side of the notepad as she wrote a daily column for the Heart Chart, the event's daily paper.

Of course, Canadian curling fans celebrated Brad Gushue's Olympic gold -- the party's probably still going on strong -- and Jack MacDuff stunned the nation with his 1976 Brier win. Cunningham said it's only a matter of time before the province wins its first Hearts crown.

"I'd like it to be me," Cunningham said, "but if not, I hope it's Heather."


Videos

Photos