At the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, Anette Norberg made curling history by becoming the first, and so far only, skip to successfully defend an Olympic title. The legendary Swede’s tale of courage and resilience still resonates a decade later.
Today Anette Norberg is regarded as arguably the greatest skip in curling history, after winning two Olympic and three World Championship gold medals during a glittering career spanning more than three decades. But few realise how failure moulded her into the champion she ultimately became.
While the women’s curling competition played out at the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002, Norberg and her team-mates were sat at home in Sweden watching glumly on television. Despite winning the European Championships two months earlier, they had surprisingly failed to qualify, a setback which Norberg now describes as a blessing in disguise.
“At the time it was very disappointing, but now I don’t think I would have those two gold medals without that,” she said, explaining how the experience gave her the time to plan ahead and crucially rethink her team’s entire training regime, a move which would go on to revolutionise women’s curling.
“For the first time, we had the opportunity to watch a lot of curling on TV. We realised that while the men tried to force their opponents into mistakes, the women tended to be almost waiting for their opponents to miss. So that summer, we sat down and decided we wanted to play more like the men, with a lot more risk. And to do that we added a lot of weightlifting to our training, to become stronger and more physical. We were one of the first teams to do this. It took a lot of courage, but that enabled us to sweep harder and be more precise, which is a way of dealing with the higher risk.”
For Norberg and her team, it was a lot more fun to play that way, and it was almost immediately effective. A first World Championship gold came in 2005 and, heading into the Olympic Winter Games Turin 2006, they were overwhelming favourites.
“What gave us the most belief was that in our minds, we knew we were stronger, we knew we had done this work that none of the other teams had done,” she said. “And the other big difference we made after 2002 was that we worked much more on the team-building side. We knew each other well, we relied on each other, and I knew that whatever happened we would support each other. Individually, I don’t actually think we were the four best players at those Olympics, but as a team we were outstanding that season.”
At the Pinerolo Palaghiaccio, they lived up to their reputation, winning seven of their nine round-robin matches before a hard-fought semi-final victory over Norway set up a gold-medal match against a vastly experienced Switzerland team.
Norberg’s side led 5-2 and 6-4 before the Swiss doggedly hit back to force an extra end. Eventually Norberg was left with a difficult double take-out on her final rock to seal gold. “It’s a moment I don’t think you can prepare for,” she said. “The big thing was I knew my team-mates were right behind me. They were sure I was going to make it. When you look at the stone it was always on target, right the whole way.”
After more than two decades of international competition, Norberg was finally an Olympic champion. Remarkably, she was back at work in her day job as a specialist insurance risk analyst the following Monday. “I took the metro to work, and people were coming up to me asking, ‘Aren’t you that curler?’” she recalled. “My daughter was only nine back then and she was getting very annoyed because people were stopping me at the shopping centre, and she would be like, ‘Go away, that’s my mum.’”
Having struggled for many years to find any kind of sponsor, the wave of attention surrounding the new Olympic champions initially made it an easy decision for Norberg to continue on to the Vancouver 2010 Games.
But the following four years were far from straightforward, due to increasing turbulence in Norberg’s personal life, meaning that the Swedish team arrived in Canada with a number of question marks surrounding their ability to perform. “There were a lot of things that happened along the way,” she said. “Two of the girls had kids. Anna [Svard]’s daughter was only six or seven months old by the time Vancouver came around, and that’s a challenge. I was going through quite a tough divorce, and we had a very poor Europeans just two to three months before the Games.”
Norberg even considered pulling out of the competition altogether, especially when her daughter refused to travel to the Games so she could stay back home in Sweden with her father. “A few weeks before we were supposed to go, I said to the Swedish Olympic Committee, ‘I will not be able to do this, I’m not strong enough to put myself into this situation.’ But they helped me, we talked a lot, and we decided, ‘OK, you have to put all this stuff in a box, lock the key, and open the box when you come back from Vancouver.’”
Between matches, Norberg was so emotionally exhausted that she barely left her bed, but somehow Sweden qualified for the play-offs in second place after the round-robin stage, behind Cheryl Bernard’s much-fancied Canada team.
A comfortable 9-4 semi-final win over China meant Sweden progressed once more to the gold-medal match, setting up an enticing clash with Canada in front of a loud and passionate crowd at the Vancouver Olympic Centre.
It had been the prospect of competing against the Canadians in front of their home fans which inspired Norberg’s team to aim for the Vancouver Games, and under the most extreme pressure it was Sweden once again who proved the most resilient. With the match going down to an extra end, Bernard missed with her final stone, leaving Norberg with her second gold, and a piece of Olympic history.
“I think it’s easier when you already have one Olympic gold medal,” she said. “But while we won in Turin because I made that last stone, in Vancouver we won because she missed. And somewhere deep inside, it’s not that easy to be happy about your opponent missing, especially in front of their home fans. That was tough for them. So inside, you feel a little bit sorry for them as well.”
Three years later, Norberg retired from curling for good, having achieved everything she had ever dreamed of. After all, when she formed her first team in 1982, the prospect of merely competing at the Olympic Winter Games seemed a fantastic notion.
“I met with one of my old schoolmates and she told me about how I once told my classmates that one day I’d be an Olympic champion,” Norberg said. “She reminded me, because everyone else thought that was really crazy, especially as back then curling wasn’t even an Olympic sport.”