Cory Christensen knows what people assume when they see her age. At 22, the Duluth native is the youngest skip of either gender competing at the U.S. Olympic trials for curling, which begin Saturday in Omaha.
Experience is typically a huge advantage in this high-pressure sport, where strategy, psychology and steely nerves separate the elite teams from everyone else. Christensen and her crew — which includes twin sisters Taylor and Sarah Anderson, 22, and Jenna Martin, 23 — don’t consider their limited years to be a drawback. “I know we’re young,” Christensen said. “But I feel like we’ve been pretty competitive for a long time.”
Team Christensen faces a heavy task this week at Baxter Arena, when it takes on teams skipped by Nina Roth of Wisconsin and Jamie Sinclair of Blaine for the right to represent the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in February. Coach Phill Drobnick warned against underestimating the foursome — starting with Christensen, a four-time junior national champion who won a silver medal at the 2016 world junior championships.
The team currently stands 31st in the World Curling Tour rankings, below both Roth (12th) and Sinclair (15th). While Drobnick said it will be considered a long shot to win, Christensen doesn’t feel that way.
“We’re really ready for this,’’ said Christensen, USA Curling’s female athlete of the year in 2016. “We’ve been competing well against a competitive women’s field for quite a few years, and we’ve had a very successful season so far this year.
“That’s helped us gain a lot of confidence. We don’t feel like an underdog.”
Drobnick, who became their full-time coach in April, said that attitude could carry them a long way. He said it’s more common to find young skips on the women’s side of the sport; Sinclair is 25 and Roth is 29. Among the five men’s teams competing at the trials, skips range in age from 35 (three-time Olympian John Shuster) to 49 (Todd Birr, the oldest athlete in the field).
“Cory has an amazing presence on the sheet of ice,’’ Drobnick said. “Games can be won or lost by owning the sheet. It’s just having that presence and making your team better by how confident you are in putting the broom down, how confident you are in the shot-calling, and how confident you are in them. It’s a big part of the mental game of curling, and Cory has it.’’
Christensen’s team is part of USA Curling’s High Performance Program (HPP), which was created in 2014 to better prepare Americans for the Olympics and world championships. Individual athletes are selected through a tryout combine and other criteria, and HPP officials assemble them into teams.
All four Team Christensen members have been in the program since its inception, starting as juniors, and won a national junior title in 2015. The following year, when Martin aged out of the junior ranks, Christensen and the Andersons remained together and won the U.S. junior championship and the world silver medal.
When Christensen and the Anderson sisters moved up to the senior level last year, HPP officials reunited the foursome. Sarah Anderson and Martin both have skipped in the past, giving the group plenty of leadership and a broad knowledge of strategy and tactics. While Christensen said it took some time to decide roles and settle into them, their close friendships — and an ability to speak their minds without anyone taking offense — have been critical to their success.
“Drama is not an issue with us,’’ Martin said. “We’re very direct with each other, and we’re all willing to sacrifice. Growing up around each other, we’ve been ‘the young ones’ our whole lives. The way we see it, we’re just getting started.”
One advantage of the team’s youth is that all have the time to train intensively. While many other elite curlers are juggling jobs and family life, Christensen and the Anderson sisters are college students who are taking a break from school to train full-time toward the Olympic trials. Martin lives in Wauwatosa, Wis., and trains on her own during the competition season.
Four years ago, Drobnick said, Christensen and her teammates hoped to make a serious run at the Olympic berth in 2022. Having achieved so much so early, they don’t feel like they have to wait.
“They realize they have an opportunity this week to do something pretty abnormal,’’ Drobnick said. “As a bunch of 22-year-olds coming into the Olympic trials, they’re probably the overlooked team because of their age. But they’ve done everything they can to make sure they’re the most prepared team when we hit the ice Saturday.”