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Curling: Persinger/Plys make the shot to win US Olympic Trials

The victory qualifies the duo for a shot at the Winter Olympics at an international qualifying tournament in December in the Netherlands.

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Chris Plys of Duluth releases a stone while teammate Vicky Persinger of Fairbanks, Alaska prepares to sweep during round-robin play at the U.S. Olympic Trials for mixed doubles curling on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021 at Curl Mesabi in Eveleth. Photo courtesy of USA Curling

Six days came down to one shot.

The last rock of the U.S. Olympic Trials for mixed doubles curling was in the hand of Fairbanks, Alaska's Vicky Persinger, and she needed to move two red stones out of the inner rings and leave her yellow stone on the "button" in the center of the sheet. It hadn't been a great day for her, but that last shot was true, and when the granite came to rest at Curl Mesabi in Eveleth, Persinger and her teammate Chris Plys of Duluth had taken a big step toward the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.

"I just tried to mind-block everything and threw it the best I could the way I knew how," Persinger said.

The 7-6 victory over Jamie Sinclair and Rich Ruohonen sends Persinger and Plys to an international qualifying tournament in the Netherlands in December, where a top-two finish will net them a spot in the Games.

"I've been grinding at this freaking game for a long time and had a lot of heartbreaking losses in trials, and just to finish one off feels as good as I hoped it would," Plys said.

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Plys, an alternate on the 2010 and 2018 U.S. Olympic men's (four-person) teams, played a key role in setting up his teammate's decisive last shot. On all three of his attempts in the eighth and final end, Plys attempted to push a guard stone set in front of the rings by Sinclair and Ruohonen backward into the house, taking it and another red stone out of play. On the first two attempts, he hit the guard, but didn't get the opposing stone. The third time, he succeeded, giving Persinger two options to get the point they needed to win the bonspiel.

"I just tried to send it back there as hard as I could and just try to make contact as hard as I could to make it for Vicky," Plys said.

In the sixth end, Persinger/Plys, trailing 5-4, used their "power play," allowing them to change the positioning of the stones to their advantage. They had a shot at 3 but opted for the safer play and 2 points.

The next end, Sinclair and Ruohonen used their power play but had to settle for a single point. Ruohonen's second of three stones appeared to "pick" on a tiny bit of debris on the ice and fell short of the hog line, rendering it out of play. On his third stone, he appeared to slip in his delivery, losing momentum and causing the stone to not end up in the desired position.

"We were set up great after my first and I missed my next two. It was killer," Ruohonen said. "You can't have that happen. We had a slam dunk two or three set up and that's the game."

After scoring the single point, it went to the final end 6-6, and Persinger/Plys had the hammer (last shot).

Tremendous Olympic-related pressure notwithstanding, Persinger hadn't had a good day, such as when one shot in the fifth end not only didn't curl enough, it also bumped a red stone into better position. That set up Sinclair/Ruohonen for a 3, the most lucrative end of the night.

"Even today, Chris really pulled me out of a hole, and it just feels great and now we have to celebrate in this but then get ready for the Netherlands," Persinger said.

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Sinclair/Ruohonen reached the final match by defeating Sarah Anderson (Minneapolis) and Korey Dropkin (Duluth) 9-7 with a 3 in the last end in Sunday afternoon's semifinal.

Though disappointed, both observed that the event gives them good practice for the men's and women's Olympic Trials, to take place Nov. 12-21 at Baxter Arena in Omaha, Nebraska.

Though Ruohonen's listed base is in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, he has confirmed Iron Range blood. His father is from Gilbert, he said, and he has curled and won for years at the Curl Mesabi facility.

"I wish it wasn't COVID times because I think this would have been packed for us ... I've been curling here since I was probably 12 years old and I'm old. It just felt really comfortable," the 50-year-old said. "I told Jamie, moving it to here wasn't the worst thing because it feels so natural to be here."

Meanwhile, Plys's preparations for this curling season have been complicated by the fact that the Duluth Curling Club does not currently have ice. The refrigeration plant at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center that serves the Duluth Curling Club's facility failed in July, leaking ammonia. A temporary fix and ice for the season is expected to be in place within a few weeks.

Until then, Plys, who said he often practices alone, has been going up to Eveleth and eventually Two Harbors to get work in.

"It's been really challenging, but I'm just kind of working with what I've got right now, I guess," he said.

Both Plys and Persinger have a busy season ahead of them. First Eveleth, then Omaha, then Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, and then ... the world?

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"One day at a time I guess, I don't know. Part of me is excited to be able to travel international and get on a plane that's not just going an hour away," Plys said.

Related Topics: CURLING
Brandon has been sports editor of the News Tribune since August 2021.
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