So much for pandemic layoff rust.
Despite not curling competitively in over a year and bypassing the 2021 Scotties Tournament of Hearts to tend to her newborn (Nina), diagnosed with infantile spasms, Sudbury skip Tracy Fleury is looking like she hasn't missed a beat.
Participating at the Humpty's Champions Cup in Calgary last week, Team Fleury (Selena Njegovan, Liz Fyfe, Kristin MacCuish) posted an undefeated record of 4-0 in Pool B round robin action, advancing through to the semi-finals before being eliminated by Silvana Tirinzoni from Switzerland, 7-4.
“It actually felt quite natural once we got out there,” said Fleury, back in Sudbury as Chelsea Carey steps in this week to guide the team into the Princess Auto Players’ Championship. Though her team also earned a berth at the 2021 Scotties by virtue of their seedings last year, Fleury decided to put family first, reaching out to Carey to throw last stones at nationals a little over a month ago.
This time around, she was back in the saddle, to borrow upon a little western vernacular.
“The shotmaking was better than we expected it to be,” said Fleury. “Even the team dynamics and strategy - we thought it would be more challenging, given the layoff, but we were quite pleased.”
The local skip and her Manitoba rink took little time setting the tone, registering a steal of three in the third end versus Minji Kim en route to a 5-3 win in their opening encounter.
Fleury showcased her flair for the dramatic, moving to 2-0 with a 7-6 win in extra ends over Jennifer Jones early on Friday morning. The back and forth affair would see Fleury and company secure a 4-3 lead after three ends, before the teams closed out the contest by alternating with single point scores for the final six ends.
With a guaranteed playoff spot on the line, the long-time representative of the Idylwylde Golf & Country Club would work a little overtime for the second straight game, upending Anna Hasselborg 10-7, also in an extra end, in game three.
Just for good measure, the Fleury foursome would go nine ends once again in their round robin finale, edging Eve Muirhead 7-6 after surrendering a 5-1 lead after five. “The more opportunities that you get to play in those high pressure games, that definitely helps with winning the close ones. You become more confident, and in time, you find that more of those games are going your way.”
Deadlocked in a 4-4 tie with Tirinzoni after six ends and holding the hammer, Team Fleury fell victim to a couple of key misses, surrendering steals of two and one in the final two ends. Still, it would be difficult to classify the week out west as anything but a success. Across the country, curlers experienced different levels of preparedness based on ice availability, which in Sudbury amounted to roughly a six week stretch from early November through to mid-December.
“I was able to practice, a little bit, but didn’t get to play any games at all,” admitted Fleury. “For this past event, it helped that they (my team) had already played, just in terms of knowing protocols and such, especially for me heading in for the first time.”
Fleury has been curling with her current team since the start of the 2018-2019 season, capturing the 2019 Manitoba Scotties Tournament of Hearts in their first year together, posting a 4-3 record in pool play at the Canadian Championship but falling in a tie-breaker to Sarah Wark.
Consistently making their way to the finals in their first few events of 2019-2020, Team Fleury broke through in October, recording their first Grand Slam victory at the 2019 Masters in North Bay. Qualifying for the playoffs in ten straight events, the Fleury foursome would remain ranked within the top five in the world, earning one of four spots doled out to date for Olympic Trials in November.
“It’s nice to know that we don’t have to play in those qualifying events, that we can plan our schedule in order to peak at the right time at the Trials,” said Fleury. It’s even more important, given the situation at home. “A lot will depend on Nina’s health, and thankfully, she’s doing really well right now, which gave me the opportunity to go away and compete - but she comes first.”
The Olympic Trials, which stand as the projected pinnacle of the 2021-2022 campaign, are set to be hosted in Saskatoon from November 20th to 28th, with five more teams still to be selected, rounding it out to a field of nine. Of course, these are the on paper plans only, based on best available knowledge, at this time.
“Next season, we will have to be adaptable, just as we were this past season,” said Fleury, who is now hoping to return to the ice again in September. “With the pandemic, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what next season will look like. We certainly hope that some Grand Slams will run, and the Trials, of course, and Scotties.”