Mixed Doubles Curlers Ella Wendling and Benji Paral Have Heard About The History, Now They Want To Repeat It

by Brendan Rourke

(l-r) Ella Wendling and Benji Paral share a moment during a preliminary round match at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024 on Jan. 29, 2024 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by WCF)

It’s not every day that teenage curlers Ella Wendling and Benji Paral get to compete on the same sheets that the U.S. men’s curling team, nicknamed “The Rejects,” made famous during the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.

That’s why they’re not taking any moment for granted and soaking up all the stories they hear in passing when traveling the long, fluorescent-lit, hallways of the Gangneung Curling Center.

It is the same hallways that skip John Shuster, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton and John Landsteiner walked en route to winning an unprecedented gold medal and becoming Olympic champions — hallways once thought to be unreachable to them after being dropped by the high-performance team four years prior in 2014 (thus the tongue-in-cheek nickname). Now, the squad is known for sparking the explosion of interest in curling back in the United States.

“It feels so unreal,” Wendling said. “It’s just feels amazing to be here.”

“We hear stories coming out of here,” Paral added. “We get to see all of our inspirational athletes that have curled here. We’ve heard great things from them and the venue has been amazing. It’s great ice to curl on.”

The ice has indeed been kind to the two athletes, who are representing Team USA in the mixed doubles curling discipline at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024. It’s a discipline that tests an athlete’s ability to think faster and be more precise, given the fact that blocking stones are pre-set before each “end,” (think of it like in terms of an inning of baseball) begins. Additionally, each team throws fewer stones, so there is a thinner margin for error during games.

However, so far, the errors have been few and far between for the dynamic duo, who both curl stateside in Wisconsin. Wendling and Paral finished round-robin play 5-0 and will move on to the quarterfinals, which start at 7pm Korean Time on Jan. 31.

Benji Paral directs Ella Wendling on how to play his throw during a mixed doubles curling match at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024 in Gangneung, South Korea.. (Photo by WCF/HowLaophotography)

The duo appear to be in synch and focused, as they spoke with Team USA after round-robin game number three against Norway. It was a back-and-forth game through the first three ends. However, the U.S. gained the upper-hand as Wendling threw a perfect final stone onto the button (the bullseye) and inside another Norwegian stone for an additional point to win the end 2-0. Despite not having the advantageous “hammer” (final throw of the end), the pair followed that up with a remarkable 4-0 score on the fifth end, all but sealing the deal for the game.

“I just put all my trust in Ella,” Paral said humbly. “I know that she’s going to throw the split. I know that she’s going to trust her weights. And then she puts the rock in my hands and we throw it really well.”

“We take it shot-by-shot and trust each other,” Wendling added on how they keep their composure in close games.

While competition is sure to get tougher as some of the teams get knocked out of the round-robin pool, Paral and Wendling are relishing the chances to play against nations who don’t have an extensive curling history. A major talking point of these winter games has been the appearances of teams representing Nigeria and Qatar.

“It’s great to see all these countries embracing curling and getting more into the sport,” said Paral. “Hopefully it will help grow the sport in these different countries. It’s crazy to see how far it has grown.”

Although just teenagers, Paral and Wendling are also on track to grow the sport even more back home, as they hope to follow in the footsteps of “The Rejects” and walk away with gold at Gangwon 2024.

Ella Wendling sweeps ahead of a stone during a mixed doubles curling game at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024 on Jan. 29, 2024 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by WCF)