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As far apart as they all live, the curling world is fairly small

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 10, 2020

Steve Birklid, center, releases the stone as his sweepers get to work during the USA Curling National Championships in Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Steve Birklid, center, releases the stone as his sweepers get to work during the USA Curling National Championships in Cheney. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

CHENEY – The composition of a curling team is often a fluid process, changing with players’ circumstances from year to year.

Work complicates schedules. People move across the country. Family gets busier.

“Somebody who works a job for 40 grand a year, and they’re paying rent and trying to save for retirement, and (for vacation) they only get two and a half weeks,” Steven Birklid said. “It’s just hard.”

Birklid, the skip for Team Birklid at the USA Curling Nationals this week in Cheney, is one of the four men competing at the Eastern Washington Recreation Center who live in Washington state. But unlike years past, those four – all members of the Granite Curling Club of Seattle – are actually on the same team, their availability having finally aligned.

After losing its first three matches, Team Birklid beat Team Brundidge 7-3 in the early draw Monday and defeated Team Kakela 10-4 later that night.

But the four men – brothers Steven and Matt Birklid, Sam Galey and Chris Bond – are enjoying the opportunity to cap their season with an appearance at nationals.

The Birklids and Galey played together last season, going 4-5 in round-robin play at nationals, but last summer their fourth spot opened up, and so they called up Bond.

Bond had been to nationals two years ago on a team based in Boston, even though by then Bond had moved across the country to Seattle.

“In curling, there aren’t that many people that play at the higher level, so sometimes people play different positions, and people have work things that come up,” said Bond, who turned 29 on Monday and whose parents now live in the Tri-Cities. “There’s quite a bit of mix and match that goes on.”

Cross-country teams can function just fine, Bond said, so long as they come together often enough at competitions.

But Team Birklid decided they weren’t going to compete as often this year, sacrificing travel for the increase in shared practice time. They practiced about once a week this year and then qualified for nationals through an open challenge event, where they qualified to compete in the 10-team field in Cheney this week.

“We don’t have enough resources to go and play tons and tons of tournaments,” said Steven Birklid, 34. “We need to build that team chemistry to make sure that when we’re on the ice, we’re clicking.”

The Birklid brothers grew up in Alaska and moved to Seattle, separately, over the last decade. Back in Fairbanks the curling club had about 400 members, Matt said, and had been in operation for about 115 years.

“I just grew up in the curling club,” Steven said.

Steven moved to Seattle in 2009, and then three years later his brother Matt followed.

“I’m a very competitive person and I really thrive in that atmosphere,” said Matt Birklid, 29. “Having curled since I could walk, it just became natural to try and be as competitive as possible at the sport that I’ve been doing my whole life and that I love.”

The 30-year-old Galey is the only team member who grew up in Seattle, where he has been curling since he was 9 or 10. He said he remembered playing in juniors against the Birklids as well as many of the other competitors in Cheney this week.

And that is another aspect of the nature of the sport: For as far apart as they all live, it’s a pretty small world.

Dan Plys is Team Birklid’s coach and alternate. He’s also the only one not from Washington, hailing instead from Duluth, Minnesota. Plys’ brother, Chris, joined Team Shuster last year and with that rink won the 2019 national championship.

“Curling is a fairly small community when you get to the competitive level,” Dan Plys said.

Barring an upset, this week will mark the end of the curling season for Team Birklid. Come early summer, they’ll reassess and see whether they will be a good fit for a team next year.

The draw to compete is certainly there for all of them, though.

“We grew up playing against these guys. We’re good friends with all of them,” Matt Birklid said. “Just being a competitive person in general, you like the atmosphere, but it’s another level when it’s with people that you are friends with. You are invested in the entire field.”

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