Curling: Duluth curler Chris Plys has two chances to join the Olympic medal club
Competing in the men's and mixed doubles, Plys will play no fewer than 18 matches in 15 days in China.
EVELETH — In the wee hours of Feb. 24, 2018, Chris Plys was watching the gold medal match of the Olympic curling tournament with some friends at his house in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth.
As an elite curler and an Olympian himself, it was not the place he would have most wanted to be in that moment, especially since fellow American competitors John Shuster, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Joe Polo were collecting gold medals.
But it was pretty high on the list.
Plys, 34, will have two chances to reach the victory podium at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, in February: with Shuster, Hamilton and Landsteiner in the men’s competition and alongside Vicky Persinger in the mixed doubles.
“I’d love to experience that myself, but as long as I and the guys can go over to Beijing and lay down a performance we’re proud of, that’ll be the important thing to me, just not really having any regrets,” Plys said.
That means Plys will be one of the busiest men in China this February. Starting with a mixed-doubles match against Australia on Feb. 2, Plys will play no fewer than 18 matches in a span of 15 days and as many as 22 in 18 days if both United States teams play for a medal.
Representing one’s country in an international competition like the Olympics is a unique opportunity, he said.
“There’s so much crap, especially today, you’re right, you’re left, you’re this, you’re that. Sports is just one of those things, especially in the Olympics or the World Cup, where everybody’s just on the same team,” he said.
Plys has Olympic experience, subbing in to the U.S. team for a struggling Shuster in 2010. He teamed with Hamilton to win the World Junior Championship in 2008 and with Shuster in winning the 2007 World University Games.
George decided to leave Team Shuster and elite-level curling after the Olympic triumph, which meant there was an opening on one of the top teams in curling. Shuster and his teammates opted for a familiar face.
“The work that I had seen him put in between 2014 and 2018 and seeing the player he'd developed into, I knew that if he were to come onboard that he would be a strong addition to our team and the best we could’ve probably found,” Shuster said.
Plys was a known quantity, but a different kind of player. Whereas George often acted as a second skip and strategist, Plys is known for throwing hard and precise shots.
“When he gets in a zone, he’s in a zone. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Landsteiner said.
Since Plys joined Team Shuster, they’ve won two national championships and finished fifth at world championships in 2019 and 2021.
Many of those same teams, like Switzerland’s Peter de Cruz rink, Olympic silver medalist Sweden (Nicklas Edin) and the red-hot Great Britain rink (Bruce Mouat) will be fighting with Shuster, Plys and company for medals.
Plys said this could be the “hardest Olympics ever.”
“I think it’s going to be who is mentally tougher. I think there’s not going to be a whole lot of games that are just quick ones. There’s gonna be a lot of just grinders, so who’s mentally toughest, who’s there at the end of the game,” he said.
In the mixed-doubles tournament, Plys is the experienced one. He and Persinger, an Olympic rookie from Fairbanks, Alaska, fought their way through the U.S. Olympic Trials (including teams with Shuster and Hamilton) in October in Eveleth, and then made a clean sweep of a last-chance Olympic qualifying event earlier in December in Leeuwarden, The Netherlands.
Like Plys, Persinger is deeply tied to her hometown, which meant she was unable to join Plys at a USA Curling Media Day event at Curl Mesabi on Dec. 15.
“She’s an Alaskan through and through. She’s never leaving,” Plys said.
The key to maintaining a partnership separated by thousands of miles? Mutual trust.
“I just trusted she was putting the work in up there and she just trusted that I was putting the work in down here, and we worked with our coaches and psychologist and all that kind of fun stuff to just make sure that all our communication systems we have in place are strong and dialed and that we were able to have hard conversations when we need to have them so that things don’t turn into bigger issues if they shouldn’t,” he said.
The object of the game is the same, but mixed-doubles matches are shorter (eight ends instead of 10), have pre-positioned stones and just five throws per end.
With fewer teammates, a good mixed-doubles curler needs to be an all-arounder.
“One thing about mixed doubles is you have to know strategy, you have to be a good shooter and you have to be able to sweep and if you don’t have all three of those, you’re probably not going to have a lot of success,” Plys said.
The game may be shorter, but it takes a physical toll.
“It makes your brain hurt, it makes your body hurt, it’s definitely a little bit more exhausting than your men’s,” he said.
The mixed-doubles tournament runs from Feb. 2-8, with the men’s tournament going from Feb. 9-20.
Like he did four years ago, a city that has nurtured his career from beginning to end will be cheering him on. One example of the length and depth of his Twin Ports curling roots? The father of 2020 U.S. women's team alternate and 2016 Olympian Aileen Geving of Duluth was one of Plys' first coaches at the Duluth Curling Club.
Plys will not be watching this tournament from Duluth, but it’s likely that he’ll be back in Lakeside for some Olympics in the very distant future.
“Never really left, man. Don’t really see a time or place where I’d want to leave, either. I just friggin’ love living here,” he said.