by Brian Wilson
For Jackie Lemke of Medford it all comes down to which side of the inch you are on.
“Sometimes you are on the right side of the inch, sometimes you are on the wrong side of the inch,” she said, noting the small difference between victory and defeat at the highest levels of the sport of curling.
Lemke knows a thing or two about the sport of curling. She began curling in the third grade under the late Bev Schroeder in the youth program at the Medford Curling Club. Lemke continued with competitive curling through her school years and beyond earning titles at state, national and international venues. Lemke then took something of a break from national-level competitive curling to have children and pursue her teaching career.
At 34, Lemke is still within her prime years of the sport, and made the decision to get back into it and make a run to see how far they can go.
Lemke said the decision to make another run at competitive curling was while she and her husband, Ryan, were watching the last Olympics. She described watching people she had played with and against being at that level and felt she needed to make the effort.
Lemke tried to make it all work while maintaining her teaching career and being a wife and mother, but she found herself getting worn down and second guessing the time she was spending on the ice practicing or away at tournaments. Something needed to change.
After long talks with her husband, she resigned from teaching full-time, although she is still subbing quite a bit, and focused on spending time with her children and getting into top curling form. “As of right now, I think we made the right decision,” she said, noting that she has thrown more practice rocks this year than ever before and that her energy levels are higher than they have been in the past.
“To be successful and to be able to advance to different levels, you have to play a lot,” Lemke said. Fortunately for Lemke, she comes from an extended curling family that helps support her efforts.
Lemke explained that getting back into highly competitive curling has been challenging on both a personal physical level and on her family. “It is asking a lot of them and myself to do it,” she said.
Along with the physical and emotional challenges, there is also the financial component. Entry fees at tournaments run from $450 to $900 with travel and other expenses on top. She said they were grateful for her team sponsors Midwest Title Group, Peterson Concrete and Kroy Nernberger’s End Game Curling to help with expenses.
Lemke competes as part of Team Potter. The team consists of Cassie Potter of St. Paul, Minn., Courtney George of Minnetonka, Minn., Lemke and Jordan Moulton of St. Louis Park, Minn.
While only four players can compete at a time, Lemke said the five-person team has allowed them to curl more often as a team because of the built-in flexibility when things happen that keep a player from the ice.
Lemke curls in the second position. She said one of the challenges has been adapting to the new five-rock free guard zone that prevents guard rocks from being knocked out of play before the fifth rock is thrown. “It has been an adjustment,” Lemke said, noting that in the past as a seca ond she was always on seek and destroy missions to take out her opponents rocks but now has to adjust for different types of situations while trying to think several shots ahead.
Lemke came into this season looking with the goal of seeing how their team stacked up against other nationallycompetitive teams and lay the groundwork for a drive to gain a qualifying berth for the 2022 Olympics.
Lemke noted the team must have stacked up pretty good compared to other elite teams in the country earning a spot in the national championships.
Lemke’s next challenge will be to head to Spokane, Wash. this weekend to compete in the 2020 National Championships with games from February 8 to 15 at the Eastern Washington University Recreation Center. This is USA Curling’s top event and the first time the Men’s and Women’s National Championships will take place in Spokane.
Lemke will be leaving Friday to head out to Spokane. She jokes that when she was younger she would have been packed days in advance, but now expects that she will end up packing that morning. Her children are staying with family, something she said she has mixed emotions about, but feels is better for her to be able to focus on her game. She noted that other tournaments she has been in where her children have come, she says that no matter how big the crowd she can hear them when they are crying in the stands.
Coming along with Jackie will be her father Jeff Mueller, who has been a major supporter and training partner with her throughout her curling career.
The National Championships format is a round-robin among the teams followed by playoffs for the qualifying teams.
The stakes for the championships are high and doing well there will position Lemke’s team as they look ahead to the future. The weeklong national event features the top men’s and women’s teams in the country and helps determine Team USA for the subsequent World Championships.
Lemke notes that unlike countries such as Canada, where the national champions automatically represent the country at the World Championships, in the U.S. there is a complicated formula based on points earned at different events throughout the season.
“There isn’t anything like competitive adult curling,” Lemke said, noting you have to experience it to understand it.
“Curling is part of our identity, it is way more than a hobby,” she said.
Curling is unique among international sports in the United States in that the total population of athletes is comparatively small. This means that at the top levels of the game, the players know one another and have crossed paths many times. Given curling’s strong tradition of sportsmanship and of talking with the players after the games, the friendships among top-ranked curlers runs deep.
Lemke said even at the highest level of the sport it is still common to congratulate the other team for making a great shot. She said the goal is always to play aggressively and to win, but it is winning by making better shots than your opponent rather than tearing them down.
While Lemke hopes to do well at the championship, she knows that the competition will be fierce with a lot of talented curlers taking to the ice. “Any team can make any shot at any time,” Lemke said.
“You just never know which side of the inch you will be on,” she said.
Lemke won’t be the only person with Medford connections at the National Championships. Local ice technician Mitch Mertens traveled to Spokane earlier this week as part of the USCA’s national ice-making team. While there, he and the other technicians transformed the arena ice to curling ice. This is a lengthy process involving crews working around the clock. Mertens and the ice making crew will also be working through the tournament to keep the ice in top playing condition.
In addition, Medford native Kroy Nernberger of Madison will be competing in the Men’s championships with Team Ruohonen which includes Rich Ruohonen of Brooklyn Park, Minn., Greg Persinger of Fairbanks, Alaska, Colin Hufman of Minneapolis, Minn., Phil Tilker of Seattle and Nernberger.
USA Curling is partnering with 12th End Sports Network (TESN,US) to stream games from the National Championships. They may be viewed at https://www.teamusa.org/ USA-Curling/webstream The Medford Curling Club will also be hosting events at the curling club to watch the streamed games played by Team Potter.