Sandra Schmirler, known as "the Queen of Curling" and "Schmirler the Curler" in her native Canada, dominated Canadian women's curling in the 1990s until her death from cancer in 2000, at the age of 36. She and her team (known as a "rink" in curling parlance) won the Canadian and world champions three times during the 1990s; her team went on to take the first Olympic gold medal ever awarded for curling, at the 1998 Nagano games. Their victories were more poignant because Schmirler and her rink were average women, with husbands, children, and jobs, who curled in their spare time for fun and yet still became the best curlers in the world.
Building Skills and a Team
Schmirler played many sports as a child, including volleyball, swimming, badminton, and track, but curling was her favorite. Schmirler began curling at a young age, joining the Biggar Curling Club at the age of 12. Even before that, she and her friend Anita Silvernagle threw rocks on the flooded and frozen fields of the Silvernagle farm, and as teenagers, Silvernagle and Schmirler curled together on the rink that won the 1981 Saskatchewan high school curling championships.
Schmirler continued to curl when she moved to Saskatoon to study physical education at the University of Saskatchewan, and by 1984 a rink on which she
played made it to the Scott Tournament of Hearts, which is the Canadian women's curling championships. She competed on Kathy Fahlman's rink as third in the 1990 Saskatchewan championships, but the rink did not fare well. Disappointed, Schmirler decided to form her own rink. Schmirler, the "skip" or captain, recruited her friend Jan Betker, who had also curled on Fahlman's rink, to be third. Marcia Gudereit became lead, and Joan McCusker second. These four women would remain together as a rink until Schmirler's death.
Schmirler's rink won the Scott Tournament of Hearts in 1993, only a few years after forming. They represented Canada in the world curling championships that year, and won those, too. The team repeated their wins at the Scott Tournament of Hearts and the world championships in 1994, but by 1995 the pressure of being the favorites, as well as stresses in their personal lives, began to affect the rink and they started to slump. But they pulled together, found their focus again, and in 1997 they won the Canadian and world championships for an unprecedented third time, despite the fact that Schmirler was throwing stones while five months pregnant with her first child at the world championships. At that time no other rink composed of the same four women had ever won more than two world championships. (Schmirler's perpetual competitor, the Swedish rink captained by Elisabet Gustafson, tied their record of three titles with wins at the world championships in 1992, 1995, and 1998, and surpassed their record with a fourth win in 1999.)
First Olympic Gold
Those wins in 1997 made Schmirler's rink the Canadian favorite going into the 1998 Olympics, the first Olympics at which curling would be an official medal event. Schmirler's rink won the Canadian Olympic trials in November 1997, beating nine other teams for the chance to represent Canada in Nagano, Japan. Schmirler's infant daughter, Sara, and her second husband, Shannon England, remained at home in Regina, Saskatchewan while Schmirler flew to Japan to compete. Schmirler's rink defeated Denmark to win the Olympic gold, and it was her shot in the final, tenth end (or inning) that clinched the victory. She said that when she returned to Canada, she was going to hang her gold medal over Sara's crib. "She had to sacrifice as much as I did. She didn't know it, that's all," Schmirler explained to Donna Spencer of the Canadian Press.
Fight of Her Life
In June 1999, shortly after Schmirler's father Art died of esophageal cancer, Schmirler's daughter Jenna was born. Throughout the pregnancy Schmirler suffered from digestive problems and excruciating back pains, but her doctors told her that they were pregnancy related. When the problems did not go away after Jenna was born, her doctors did further tests and found a fist-sized, malignant tumor directly behind Schmirler's heart.
Schmirler did not have the strength to compete at curling while she was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but she remained involved as much as she could. From her sickbed she worked with the rest of her rink to coordinate the details of her comeback, making sure that they had sponsors lined up and uniform jackets picked out. "She was the Skip," Gudereit later recalled to Adrian Wojnarowski of the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record. "She wanted everything right when she came back."
But Schmirler never came back. She passed away early in the morning of March 2, 2000.
|1963||Born July 11 in Biggar, Saskatchewan|
|1997||Daughter Sara born|
|1999||Father, Art Schmirler, dies of esophageal cancer in April|
|1999||Daughter Jenna born June 30|
|1999||Diagnosed with cancer August 26|
|2000||Dies March 2|
Canada and Curling
Schmirler, who had guarded her privacy carefully when she first became ill, had reappeared in the public eye in the weeks just before her death. She had agreed to provide color commentary for the 2000 Canadian juniors' curling championships, as well as the Scott Tournament of Hearts and the Labatt Brier, the men's championships, although her failing health allowed her only to do the first, the juniors' championships. There, on February 11, she gave an emotional press conference to discuss her battle. "I now know that losing a curling game isn't the end of the world," she said, speaking also of the importance of spending time with her family.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1993-94, 1997||Rink wins Canadian championships|
|1993-94, 1997||Rink wins world championships|
|1997||Rink places first in Canadian Olympic qualifiers|
|1998||Rink wins gold medal in Olympics|
|1998||Rink named Team of the Year by the Canadian Press|
|1999||Inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame|
As an article in the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record recalling the life of Schmirler put it, she was "survived by a husband, two daughters, Canada, and curling." Canada as a nation certainly felt itself bereaved. In death as in life, Schmirler was treated like a queen by her country: All across Canada flags flew at half-staff, a national television station broadcast her memorial service live, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was planning a television movie based on her life. The curling world also held several tributes to Schmirler. The first day of the Scott Tournament of Hearts has been permanently declared Sandra Schmirler Day, and the remnants of Schmirler's gold-medal winning rink threw a ceremonial stone in her honor to the sound of Scottish bagpipes on the Olympic ice in Utah in 2002. The Canadian Curling Association and Schmirler's friends and family also came together to create a permanent tribute, the Sandra Schmirler Foundation, which raises money to help the families of children with serious illnesses.
Lefko, Perry. Sandra Schmirler: The Queen of Curling. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 2000.
Scholz, Guy. Gold on Ice: The Story of the Sandra Schmirler Curling Team. Regina: Coteau Books, 1999.
Araton, Harvey. "A Curler's Homey Legend Can Still Inspire." New York Times (February 12, 2002): D1.
Wallace, Bruce. "In Too Few Years a Life to Remember: Sandra Schmirler Earned Fame on the Ice, but Never Lost Sight of the Important Things in Life." Maclean's (March 13, 2000): 56.
Wojnarowski, Adrian. "Curling Star's Legacy Lives On: Canadians Honor Schmirler." Record (Bergen County, NJ; February 12, 2002): S1.
"The Life & Times of Sandra Schmirler." Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.tv.cbc.ca/lifeandtimes/bio2001/schmirler.htm (January 8, 2003).
"Sandra Schmirler: Celebrating Women's Achievements." National Library of Canada. http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/2/12/h12-237-e.html (January 8, 2003).
Sandra Schmirler Foundation. http://www.sandraschmirler.org (January 8, 2003).
"Schmirler Talks with Media about Fight for Her Life." Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity. http://www.caaws.ca/Whats_New/feb00/schmirl_feb11.htm (January 8, 2003).
Spencer, Donna. "Canadians Felt a Part of Schmirler's Success." Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity. http://www.caaws.ca/Whats_New/mar00/schmirl_mar2.htm (February 11, 2003).
Sketch by Julia Bauder