Strong's results help erase last year's fiasco

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

It was the week that felt like a month.

That's the way Newfoundland/Labrador skip Heather Strong describes last year's nightmare on the Rock.

It was supposed to be a dream situation. The Scott Tournament of Hearts was in St. John's, Nfld., with the home team desperate to do well. Newfoundlanders are passionate about everything, curling included. It turned into an unforgettable experience for Strong.

She finished 1-10.

It's the type of result that could break the confidence of even the strongest player. So it was time, to quote The Shawshank Redemption, to "get busy living or get busy dying."

Strong opted to get busy living. She's back at this year's championship, a sympathetic figure with a lot of people pulling for her to do well, considering what she went through last year.

Strong made some changes to her rink, bringing in Shelley Nichols as third to join lead Susan O'Leary and second (and sister) Laura Stand as second. Longtime great Cathy Cunningham was added as her fifth player. Cunningham is a 10-time Hearts participant and provides the type of experience younger rinks often lack.

So far, it's all been good. Strong is in the playoff hunt in what has become a tight competition. But she's learned some lessons. She's reluctant to even say the word playoffs.

"We'll see. We still have some big games," she said after a tough 9-6 win against Saskatchewan in yesterday's morning draw.

She followed that with a gutsy effort in the afternoon, winning 8-7 by scoring one in the last end against Alberta. This ran her record to 6-3.

The beauty of sports is redemption is always around the corner. For those who don't fear failing and are willing to try again, there's usually another chance.

"I wouldn't have traded places with the provincial reps who didn't make it," Strong said of last year's experience. "It was a difficult situation, but you make the best of it and move on."

But it took a while to forget a meltdown on a national stage in front of a home crowd.

"It was the last curling we did and I thought about it all summer," Strong said. "But we worked with a sports psychologist and decided to make some changes. We got some help with strategy by bringing Cathy on and it's been good."

Getting better takes work and that's what this team did. They worked hard, playing more than in previous years to get ready for this event. They even participated in the Canada Cup in Kamloops.

All the work has helped the body and the game. Cunningham and sports psychology has helped the mind. Whatever the sports phycologist said, it must have been good, very good.

"She tells us about staying in the moment, avoiding distractions, staying confident. She talks about team dynamics," said Strong.

Get the mind right and the body will come around.

It also helps to have Cunningham in your corner.

Against Alberta's Cathy King, Strong gave up a steal of three in the first end. That would shake just about anyone.

"Cathy (Cunningham) has been in every situation in the 10 times she's been here and she just reminded us that it was the first end and there were nine more to go," Strong said.

She never gave in or up. Mind over matter.

Strong started with only one win in her first four games. Her next game was against perennial favourite Colleen Jones of Nova Scotia. In a tight game, Newfoundland managed to score three in the 10th for an 8-5 win.

What a year it would be for Newfoundland curling if this team continues to play well and makes the playoffs. The Rock has been celebrating since last weekend when Brad Gushue's rink won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics.

Third Shelley Nichols' brother, Brad, plays third on Gushue's rink.

"We weren't a part of that. We were gone even before he played the final game," said Strong. "But it would be good thing for curling if we managed to do well."

Especially after last year.

Now it's five wins in a row for Newfoundland.

"If you say so, but all I know is that I won two games today and I have two more tomorrow," she said yesterday. "I'm going out to dinner and it's going to taste good because we won two games."

Stay in the moment, don't get distracted.

It's working so far.


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