The tiny town of Naseby in New Zealand can claim to be the most remote curling hotspot on the planet after the success of four friends at the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
Hunter Walker, Zoe Harman, William Becker and Lucy Neilson will compete for New Zealand’s first medal of the Games on Thursday after a string of outstanding performances at the Champery Curling Arena.
The friends hail from the sparsely populated Maniototo region on New Zealand’s South Island. Walker and Becker live on farms, Harman and Neilson in a small town named Ranfurly. And within 30 minutes of their homes is Naseby, where you will find the first dedicated year-round indoor rink to open in the southern hemisphere and one of only three such facilities in New Zealand.
“What’s the population of Naseby? About 120 when it’s busy,” according to team coach Nelson Ede.
This particular rink, however, is producing plenty of talented Kiwi curlers. Like the team at Lausanne 2020, all the NZ curling representatives at the Lillehammer 2016 Winter YOG trained at Naseby. Many senior international representatives live in the area.
For the athletes, curling is a family affair. Most have parents, siblings or other relatives who are involved in the sport. Neilson’s brother, Matthew, was a 2016 Youth Olympian.
“But you should really ask Will about his family,” suggested Neilson, 17. “His whole family are curlers.”
After some gentle prodding, Becker, 16, takes up the story.
“My great granddad was the first person to take a New Zealand curling team overseas, my uncle [Sean Becker] was one of the first New Zealand curlers to play at the Winter Olympics [at Torino in 2006], my granddad helped to start the curling rink, and all my aunties and uncles have been overseas curling.”
The stage is set! New Zealand have already qualified for the quarter-finals. Can Great Britain secure a spot in the next round? ??— Olympic Channel (@olympicchannel) January 14, 2020
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Scottish migrants are credited with bringing curling to New Zealand more than a century ago, playing on frozen lakes and ponds during festivals. The sport survived to find new fans among the team members and their peers.
“You don’t have to be really sporty for curling, if you know what I mean,” Harman, 15, said. “There is also a lot of strategy and teamwork.”
Walker, 17, the team’s skip, has also played rugby union, a sport more usually associated with New Zealand. “You get on better trips if you play curling,” he said.
Having travelled more than 18,500km to Lausanne, the team have certainly made the most of their Games experience. After winning four of their five pool games, New Zealand beat Germany 7-4 in the quarterfinals to join curling heavyweights Norway, Russia and Japan in the semifinals. New Zealand lost 8-4 to Japan and will now take on Russia, who were beaten 7-2 by Norway, on Thursday in the bronze medal game.
The curlers will also compete in a mixed doubles event starting on 18 January in what has already been a Games to remember.
“To march in the Opening Ceremony was overwhelming,” Neilson said. “Wherever we go here people want to talk to us when they see we are from New Zealand. It’s been incredible.”