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U.S. curling squads struggle

USA's Jason Smith, left and John Benton work to control their rock during their match against France. (Harry E. Walker / MCT)
USA's Jason Smith, left and John Benton work to control their rock during their match against France. (Harry E. Walker / MCT)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Debbie McCormick could barely contain her tears Sunday morning, when her continuing struggle to make shots left her U.S. curling team with its fourth loss of the Olympic tournament. A few hours later, her male counterparts were lamenting their own lost opportunities.

An 0-4 start for the men in round-robin play and an 0-3 beginning for the women left both American teams scrambling to dig out. Just as they were making a bit of headway, they slipped backward on the sixth day of the tournament, leaving the women's medal hopes dangling by a thread and the men's on life support.

John Shuster's rink must win its final two games Monday — including a morning match against the undefeated Canadians — to have any chance of advancing to the medal round. McCormick's team needs a strong finish Tuesday against Switzerland and China, plus a little luck.

Good fortune has been absent all week, as has the touch of the usually reliable Shuster and McCormick. In a sport so dependent on emotional resilience, both teams were doing their best to maintain positive attitudes for the final two days of round robin play at Vancouver Olympic Centre.

"We've struggled, and we're not happy with our performance so far," said Jason Smith, Shuster's vice skip and one of five Minnesotans on the men's team. "But we haven't been blown off the sheet. We've continued to play hard, even though we started 0-4. Curling is a game of inches, and this is one of those weeks where things haven't gone our way."

Shuster's rink tried to rally behind some star power for the third day in a row. San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, a curling fan, watched the games on Friday and Saturday and spent time with the team in its penthouse at the Olympic Village. Sunday, Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis gave them a pep talk and stayed for their 4-2 loss to Great Britain.

After Shuster missed several shots early in the tournament, Smith took over the duty of throwing the last rocks for the Americans. Smith ran into his own difficulties Sunday. His team had a chance to score three points in the sixth end, but on his last throw, he accidentally knocked a U.S. rock out of scoring position.

The loss ended a two-game winning streak for Shuster's team. "Jason and I had a couple of opportunities to close ends that the other guys set up awesomely for us," Shuster said. "It just didn't happen. Every time we had a chance for something good, it seemed like we'd have a not-quite-perfect shot that didn't go our way."

McCormick could empathize. Her team also had won two in a row heading into Sunday to improve to 2-3, then conceded to Canada after seven ends in a 9-2 loss.

Canada's women also are undefeated, and Cheryl Bernard's team is so popular that ticket scalpers were working the streets around the building at 8:30 on Sunday morning. The 5,600-seat Vancouver Olympic Centre has been packed for every game, and Bernard's team raised its brooms to a wild crowd as the Americans left with heavy hearts.

In Sunday night's game against Sweden, Allison Pottinger replaced McCormick to throw the last rocks. Even Bernard said she was "choked up" by her fellow skip's struggles, but no one felt worse than McCormick.

"I missed some draws again and put us in a bad spot," she said. "It's awful. We're trying the best we can."

Women's coach Wally Henry, McCormick's father, said his team is mentally strong and has the ability to finish well. Shuster said his team isn't ready to roll over, either.

"We came here and really battled, and we've given ourselves chances to win games," he said. "We're not giving up, because this isn't over yet."

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