The 2023 USA National Championships of Curling are going on this week in the arena of the Denver Coliseum, and while it’s a high stakes battle for these athletes, it’s also a giant reunion of friends and family. These teams are competing against the best the country has to offer for a spot to represent the USA at the World Championships. Eight teams for both the men and women are fighting it out on the ice for the chance to move on.
“I love the strategy, it’s such a mind game. But really, a lot of cool people. We are all friends, even at this level. Even if you’re not on the same team, its super fun to have a nice tight community where anybody will do anything for you even though you are going at each other hard on the ice,” said Rich Ruohonen.
“These are the top eight teams in the country. The big one is the Olympics, that’s what is always on the mind,” said Danny Casper, the skipper for Team Casper who recently won a silver medal at the University games this year.
Casper has been curling since he was young boy and has proved his skill across many events to earn him the spot of “skipper” or team captain. The skipper is the player on a team who gives commands, leads the strategy of the game, and takes the last shot on every leg.
Curling is a niche community. Casper being from Westchester Country, New York, where curling isn’t exactly popular, owes his love for the sport to his best friend Andrew Stopera who is also competing in the national championships for Team Dropkin.
“We are from the same hometown, we grew up together, he is a bit older than me and while we aren’t siblings, we almost kind of are, in that way of him being like an older brother, and me wanting to do what he does,” said Casper.
Among the heated moments of the game, Casper, and his friends on the ice, both on his team and on the opposition, love to keep it light with a little bit of friendly bickering.
“We make fun of each other during the games the whole time. Its making shots and looking at the other person and giving a wink or tipping your hat,” said Casper.
“I’m by far the oldest guy here, by ten or twelve years. I was going to retire but then some of these guys asked me to skip’em,” said Rich Ruohonen minutes after leading Team Ruohonen to a win.
Ruohonen started curling when he was twelve years old. Now he is 51 and competing in this year’s national championships as a skipper for Team Ruohonen, a group made up of young athletes who wanted Rich to coach them and bring veteran experience to their team.
Ruohonen said, “These guys asked me like a month ago to join their team. I’ve been to 20 or some national championships and won twice,” then he added I’m just trying to teach them a little bit, you know?”
What Rich brings to the ice is one of those most important aspects of a great curler, experience. Curling is a game of strategy and mental fortitude. As the skipper he can help keep the team poised.
“It’s just about being there before. When you’re playing with a young team its nerves, they miss the wrong way, its learning to pick yourself up from a bad shot because if you miss two in a row, I mean its disaster, its big trouble. There’s a lot of psychological stuff about curling.”
Ruohonen is a lawyer in the Twin Cities. When he is not working or spending time with his family, he loves to compete on the ice. He has competed in two world championships and placed second in the finals of the last two Olympic qualifiers.
“It’s been hard work but its super rewarding, and now I am trying to give back and teach a little bit. I wish I was twenty years younger because we just know so much more about the game now. You know, back then half the guys smoked and were overweight and they were still the best players!” chuckled Ruohonen.
Sitting in the front row of the stands right above the ice, packed into a small section of seats, ringing bells, smacking high-fives, and peering through binoculars are the parents.
Shelley Dropkin’s son Korey is the skipper of Team Dropkin and Bob Howell’s daughter, Ally, and son, Tom, are both competing in the championships in Denver. Over twelve years ago the two families met at a club called Broomstones in Wayland, Massachusetts. The kids have been on combined teams together ever since, even when the families lived far away from one another.
For Bob, being there in the Coliseum was a highlight of his life, watching both of his kids compete in the same national championships. “I’ll be here all day, all week!” said Bob with a huge smile.
“The basic ethics of the game is that you treat each other with respect. You win and you lose gracefully,” said Shelley Dropkin, “It teaches you a lot of basic values, that how you treat each other really matters.”
Shelley has watched her sons Korey and Steven curl from small local tournaments to winning a junior national championship, all the way to the World Championships in Sweden, with both her sons on the same team.
During a photo Bob leaned over to Shelly and said in quiet excitement, “This is what it’s all about.” Both couldn’t hide how proud they were for their kids.
The National Curling Championships will continue at the Denver Coliseum until February 11th. Games start at 10 am and continue throughout the day. The finals, to determine this year’s men’s and women’s national title, will be this Saturday, Feb. 11. Get your tickets here: https://www.axs.com/series/16775/2023-usa-curling-menys-womenys-national-championships-denver-tickets.