By Don Landry
You wonder how it is that some teams can just keep on keeping on, accelerator to the floor.
The world of sports is more than just littered with examples of teams that reach the pinnacle and then fall off the very next season, plunging into the crevices of mediocrity and disinterest, slowed by a full stomach.
Staying focused and hungry on the heels of great accomplishment seems a difficult task to continue. On rare occasions, the champs return with just as much zeal, concentration and intensity as ever.
This season, that is Team Jennifer Jones.
This year hasn't been perfect. It has, however, been very impressive. The Jones rink is ranked as the number one women's team in the world. They are at the top of the money list as well. Their season's record, according to statistics at CurlingZone.com, is a gaudy 48 wins and 13 losses. Another run to a Scotties berth was capped with a 5-2 win over Kerri Einarson in the Manitoba final a couple of weeks back.
That's eye-catching enough. Considering that it comes immediately following the greatest season the team has ever enjoyed makes it more so. That there has been no real letdown is surprising to some, if not many. Not Jones, though.
“Not at all, to be honest. We were excited to play,” she responds, when asked if her team's quick start (they finished third in the first event they played in and won their second) caught her off guard at all. “I would have been surprised by the opposite - if we’d had some kind of letdown."
I'm trying to crack the code of what makes Team Jennifer Jones tick. What has allowed them to stay on the crest of the wave, even after the great glory of a dream season in 2013-14. I'm doing it in separate phone conversations; one with Jones and another with her longtime teammate, second Jill Officer.
To say they've scaled the mountain together is accurate. The two of them, along with lead Dawn McEwen and third Kaitlyn Lawes got to the top of Olympus a year ago, completing a perfect run to a gold medal at the Sochi Games. Jones is about to take part in her 11th Scotties, Officer her 10th (all with Jones).
“Going into this season, I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest,” says Officer. She didn't have the same assured feeling that her skip had, as the new season dawned.
“We kind of picked up with that desire where we left off. Even though I felt some uncertainty as to what it would feel like because we had won the Olympics.”
After a whirlwind of Olympic and post-Olympic activity - where their time and attendance were in high, high demand - it would be reasonable to assume that they were toeing the emotional cliff in the aftermath.
So why didn't they? Fall off the cliff, I mean.
“We have a lot of fun with this team and I think that’s a really big key to our success and it’s a really big key to our desire to continue to be better,” says Officer. On that front, Jones is in emphatic agreement. They really just like being together. “Our team gets along so well that for us to go on the ice, it’s just a great time,” she says. "We just love to play. We love to compete."
That is one, crucial, element in the chemistry of it all. For Officer, it starts there. If you ain't having fun, why bother?
“I’m at a point in my life that I’m putting a lot of time in - and I think Jennifer’s the same way, we have young families at home that we’re taking time away from - if we weren’t having fun and feeling like we can continue to be better and successful, I don’t think we would do it,” she says.
Managing the team and the demands placed on it - by the game, by fans, by sponsors and more - seems to be another critical factor. After the blizzard of honours and appearances that followed the Sochi win, Jones and her team did something they hadn't really done in a long, long time. Just relax.
“We took almost four months off and we haven’t done that in a decade," says Jones of a summer in which the four teammates saw little of each other. Little training, too. Just a summer of recharging. "I think the break was really good for us,” she adds.
Yet there is another intangible at play here, to be certain. It's a finicky one - or can be, at least - known as intensity. Hunger, if you will. Some athletes and teams have it. Some, like the Jones squad, keep it, too.
“I’m not sure where it all comes from," replies Jones, when I ask her if she sets the tone for the team in that regard. Pressing the issue, on an individual basis, I ask whether she is personally driven to be known as he best skip in the history of the women's game.
“It’s not my motivation," she answers, flatly. "It’s something that’s truly an honour when it’s talked about. I can’t believe the talented players I’ve gotten to play with along the way. And all the success that we’ve had and the opportunities that will never be forgotten by us. That is really why I play. For these memories. I want to be a great role model for my daughter (Isabella). I want her to know that he mom chased her dream. That's what I want her to do."
For Officer, who has been a teammate of Jones' for most of the last 20 years (including an unbroken stretch since 2003), the team's intensity does have a little to do with the personality of the skip. The rest of the squad may just take a cue from Jones there.
“Jennifer, as our leader, encourages us more than anything to not take a back seat," says Officer. "Because we could easily do that this year. But, she just continues to work on things that we’re going to need to build on for 2018.”
Ah, yes, 2018. While this year's Scotties, in Moose Jaw, is on the horizon, Team Jones had already, long ago, made the decision that their craving for success will extend through another Olympic cycle. Right now, they do not feel or see their desire flagging, nor do they anticipate it.
I have to credit both Jones and Officer for not getting short with me. At some point, I realize I'm asking the same sorts of questions over and over, in slightly different ways. Looking for some big secret to spill forth. In the end, I ask Officer if really there is no way of answering why someone stays hungry or when it will end. She considers it.
“Maybe there is no explanation," she agrees. "But I think, for me, I just know that there’s more in this for me. There’s more for me to learn. Not just about curling but about myself as an athlete and myself as a person.”
With the Scotties beginning this weekend in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a veteran team is having no problem at all getting hyped for something that has been so, so familiar to them.
“Never gets old," says Jones, of the thrill to play for a national audience. "You never know when it’s going to be your last one."
“Are we excited? Absolutely," says Officer, enthusiastically. "Because we missed last year. Despite the fact that we were at the Olympics, we were disappointed about not being able to do both,” she adds, laughing.
For Team Jones, the fun continues.
So does the winning. It's just hard to know which of the two is driving the other.
By Don Landry