Curlers Find Olympic Inspiration Within Walls Of Madison Curling Club

by Al Daniel

Matt Hamilton competes during Game 3 at the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Curling on Nov. 21, 2021 in Omaha, Neb.


On his earliest possible day to obtain a driver’s license, Matt Hamilton was spoiled with fuel for his competitive curling engine.
The 2005 U.S. Olympic Team Trials began on his 16th birthday at his second home — the Madison Curling Club in McFarland, Wisconsin. For a week, he watched the host men’s and women’s teams each test nine visiting quartets seeking passports to the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006.
On the men’s side, skip Craig Brown’s team attained a three-way tie for second place, one win behind four Minnesotans. Pete Fenson’s top-seeded team bested Brown’s in the playoff final.
In the women’s final, Debbie McCormick’s (née Henry) squad lost a 5-4 decision to Cassandra Johnson’s. MCC member Maureen Brunt joined that majority-Minnesotan team in Italy, but it was unusually slim representation.
Still, Hamilton recalled, “Seeing all the athletes there inspired me to get really into it and pursue the Olympic dream.”
Now twice as mature, he will relive that dream as the first defending gold medalist with MCC seasoning. His sister Becca and Nina Roth will likewise represent Team USA a second time. Their return means MCC ambassadors have combined to fill 14 out of 35 all-time women’s Olympic roster spots including Beijing.
Together the trio are the club’s latest of 13 Olympians or Paralympians in its history. They also tighten their grip on a torch radiating with milestones. The MCC is coming off its centennial in 2021 and celebrating its current facility’s 25th anniversary in 2022.
The 1920s were a not so roaring formative decade for the institute, which operated under the grandstands at the University of Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium until 1929. In between, men’s curling took a one-and-done stab at the 1924 Olympic Games, not to try again as a non-demonstration sport until 1998.
Shortly before turning 10, the MCC erected its own facility, and maintained it through a 67-year partnership with the city. That venue’s dying days and a subsequent shift to the outskirts coincided with Roth (née Spatola) and the Hamiltons’ rise through elementary school.
Roth was 9, Matt 8, Becca 7 when the six-sheet McFarland arena opened in September 1997. As residents of the town whose population is south of 9,000, the three would benefit from the building’s proximity and ensure new blood from the MCC to Team USA deep into the new millennium.
“McFarland is a village,” said Roth, “but we’ve grown up in this smaller curling village in the Madison Curling Club.”
As their village within a village took root, their elders were raring to watch them pick up where they left off after one more false start to curling’s Olympic presence.
Men’s stars Steve Brown, Wally Henry (McCormick’s father) and Ed Sheffield put the MCC on the world championship map in the late ’70s and the ’80s. The Olympic pipeline launched with a local quartet — skip Lisa Schoeneberg, second Lori Mountford and the mother-daughter duo of Diane and Erika Brown — constituting the first-ever women’s Olympic team, though in a demonstrative capacity at Calgary in 1988.
Erika, who at age 15 assumed that team’s third position, returned for the first official women’s Olympic tournament in Nagano in 1998, opposite Schoeneberg, Mountford and Debbie Henry. Erika’s father, Steve, was the coach both times, and has since joined Mountford and Schoeneberg in the USA Curling Hall of Fame.
Others sustained the legacy deep into this century, and Erika had a long-awaited third go-round at Sochi in 2014. That capped her sixth of eight seasons as a skip, while her brother Craig savored an Olympic journey as the men’s alternate.
Steve followed that act with his second run as the Paralympic wheelchair team coach, skipped by another MCC product in Patrick McDonald. With Kirk Black and Justin Marshall, he oversaw two more locals at PyeongChang in 2018.
All the while, the Browns influenced those who have cemented McFarland’s status as the MCC’s epicenter.
“I remember a few times when I was practicing down at the club,” Matt Hamilton said, “Erika or Craig Brown would be down there throwing and I would call my buddy and tell him to come down and throw stones. I asked them a few times if I could sweep their practice rocks. Those two were huge in shaping what I thought was possible.”

(L-R) Tabitha Peterson, Nina Roth, Becca Hamilton and Tara Peterson celebrate after winning Game 1at the 2022 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Curling on Nov. 19, 2021 in Omaha, Neb.


Those possibilities included stepping out of one’s geographic and positional comfort zones. But for the other Hamilton, the first step came after some coaxing off the sideline.
As much as Matt embraced curling early on, and Roth even earlier, Becca was sopped up in soccer and lacrosse. Between her travels for those dryland games, she was content to stay a spectator around the ice.
Her rationale: “I was nervous to go out there and not be good at something.”
But one day, during her freshman year in high school, Matt’s coach “dragged me out on the ice, and I never looked back.”
By 2007, Becca was joining the likes of Roth at the junior national tournament. By 2008, she was a junior national champion. Within another two years, she qualified for the women’s national championship.
“Obviously times have changed,” since the stage fright froze her out, she said. “Glad I got over that.”
She hurdled over her hesitancy because while the passion was not invariably infectious, the people were thoroughly inviting. 
Becca marveled with mirth over Steve’s unheard-of willingness to open the club at 5 a.m., allowing understudies to sandwich their school hours with world-class practices and lessons. For added motivation, he exhibited his daughter’s hardware and hosted curling watch parties at his house.
To meet everyone’s practical needs, Steve opened an all-curling sporting goods shop shortly after moving to Madison in 1975. Craig has since taken over the store, and his sister continued what their dad started by molding the millennials. Erika eventually teamed up with Roth at the 2009 Olympic trials and for each of the next two seasons.
“She really taught me a lot about how to elevate my game, how to practice with a purpose, and just be a strong female athlete,” Roth said.
No one ever went hurting for that purpose’s prerequisites. Roth credits icemakers Jeff Schleisman and Mike Fraboni (a former two-time national champion) with fulfilling their need for “championship-quality” sheets. At a typical club, she said, one must “pre-arrange when they get their ice available,” whereas “we could just call up Jeff and ask for ice time. That’s probably the most important thing.”
Sheffield — third to Steve’s skip on an icebreaking 1982 men’s national championship team — has been another outstanding mentor. Early in his formation, Matt met Sheffield for after-school and weekend sessions, which he says “got my slide consistent.”
Following the founding generation’s lead, all MCC products who go global come back for more where they came from. They never fail to reciprocate their junior counterparts’ cheers at a given competition.
“It’s just a small community,” Becca said. “I think we’re all each other’s biggest supporters.”
Age, experience and fame also have no bearing on who shares the ice for league or informal activity. Roth did not know the half of who she was listening to when Mountford starting mentoring her class of grade-school novices in the McFarland rink’s formative years.
“She didn’t talk about her Olympic status much in the beginning,” Roth said. “She just wanted to teach young girls how to curl.”


(L-R) Debbie McCormick and Ann Swisshelm compete during the women's curling round robin match against South Korea at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 on Feb. 17, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.


Once they understood Mountford, McCormick, Schoeneberg or the Brown family accolades, the youth felt free to pick brains.
“We were little sponges,” Becca said. “Whenever we had an opportunity to play with curlers of that caliber, we’d take advantage as much as we could.”
Preceding torchbearers are just as opportunistic in supporting their successors on the road. Erika Brown hung up her broom in 2016 and lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband, Canadian curling connoisseur Ian Tetley. Both will support Erika’s old neighbors when a tour takes them around her new parts.
Likewise, McCormick retired in 2015, and was eager to embrace the MCC’s new tandem when they won their Olympic trials. As she did, she was apt to tell Becca, “It’s your turn now.”
It is always somebody’s turn. Since Nagano, the women’s Madison monolith has given way to Olympic teams representing multiple clubs. But every starting foursome since 2010 has featured a pair of Madison-area natives.
For his part, Matt went north to continue his development in Minnesota’s junior ranks. This meant swallowing a little pride and accepting a de facto demotion from skip to lead.
None other than Steve reinforced Matt’s motivation, telling him, “‘Leads can’t ever win games, but they sure as heck can lose them.’
“Made me feel like my position was super important where I didn’t really give it a ton of respect before.”
Fast-forward to 2018, and Matt was the sole Wisconsinite on John Shuster’s team. As the squad’s second, he boosted 5-3 semifinal and 10-7 championship victories over second-place and top-seeded Canada and Sweden, respectively.
While Team Shuster seeks a sequel to the “Miracurl on Ice” in Beijing, the U.S. women are still pursuing their first medal. The closest they have come was fourth place at Salt Lake City in 2002, where McCormick was the lone MCC-trained curler.
If there is any bonus hometown motivation at play, Roth and the Hamiltons are literally wearing it. Throughout the latest round of trials, they sported the MCC’s centennial patch on their Team USA uniform.
The logo’s golden rendering of the Wisconsin State Capitol might as well be a not so subtle hint of what they intend to drape around their threads come Feb. 20.
“We always want to represent the Madison Curling Club well and come back with a medal,” Becca said. But given the start of the club’s second century and the incumbent facility’s silver anniversary, she allowed, an Olympic triumph “would be extra special this year.”

Al Daniel is a freelance features writer and contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. Follow him on Twitter @WriterAlDaniel.