Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Problems with USA Curling’s Championship Qualification Processes


Presently, the current USA Curling system has multiple national championships, including, U18 Nationals, Junior Nationals, U.S. Nationals, Wheelchair Nationals, Club Nationals, Senior Nationals, Mixed Nationals, Mixed Doubles Nationals, Arena Nationals, and the Curling College Championship.

On September 11, 2017, USA Curling sent out an email with the subject line “Volunteers needed in Vegas for 2018 World Men's Championship” to its membership. (See Email from USA Curling to Membership (Sept. 11, 2017)).  Towards the end of the email, there was a section about upcoming playdowns where it asked “Are you ready for playdowns? Sign up today!” and provided links about how to register for 2017-2018 playdowns. Going to the registration page in the email (hereafter, “Registration Page”) takes you to a page that explains qualifications for all national championship events (except Arena Nationals). Arena Nationals will not be discussed here as it was not listed on the registration page.

Until this email, I had never looked intently at the registration requirements for championships. I found it interesting that the qualification systems varied so widely when all events are national championships in their respective fields. For example, Club Nationals, U18 Nationals, and Mixed Nationals require playdowns based on geographic regions (i.e., teams must win a playdown for the region that their club belongs to—Mountain Pacific, Dakota Region, etc.). (See Registration Page). However, Junior Nationals use a qualification system that involves four events (which take place in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Massachusetts). “Four (4) qualifying events will be held (Berth bonspiels), with two women’s and two men’s teams advancing from each event. . . . Teams may enter as many events as they wish. Teams (and individual players) will be ineligible to play in any successive qualifying event if they have secured a berth in a previous berth qualifier to Junior Nationals. Teams do not need to have the same team members for each event. Teams may reconfigure with different players for each event.” (Registration Page).

For Wheelchair Nationals, “all wheelchair curling athletes who have demonstrated the ability to play regulation curling games are encouraged to register . . . Athletes will register into the bonspiel as individuals (no team entries). Size of teams will be determined based on the total number of event registrants. All teams will be developed using a draft system in which current members of the National High Performance Program will serve as skips and select their teams.” (See Registration Page). And, the Curling College Championship “is designed to find the best college curling school in the nation. Sixteen schools will be invited to participate in a split round robin followed by a championship round, and one will take the single national title.” (Registration Page).

The qualification process for Mixed Doubles Nationals “depends on the number of entries. The USCA format formula described in Section II (7) of the Championship Rules will be used. As soon as possible after the sign-up deadline, teams will be notified of the specific format, and the beginning and ending dates for the competition.” (Registration Page). But, unlike in some of the other qualification overview sections which link to the 2016-2017 Rules of Curling and Competition handbook, there is no link to the “Championship Rules.” As such, I ran a search for the phrase “championship rules” on the USA Curling website, and the results brought up this page: http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Curling/Features/2016/October/25/Championship-Rules-Book-now-available which suggests that the Championship Rules book is the same as the Rules of Curling and Competition (see also http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Curling/Events/Championships-microsite/Inside-the-Championships/Rules). However, when one views Section II (7) of the handbook, that section deals with uniforms. (see Rules of Curling and Competition, pp. 23-24 [last accessed Oct. 4, 2017]), so it is unclear exactly how Mixed Doubles Nationals are run. With many of the high performance athletes showing sudden interest in participating in Mixed Doubles, it is odd that the requirements or qualification are, as of yet, unpublished.

Lastly, for U.S. Nationals, the qualification process involves a combination of awarding spots based on Order of Merit points and the use of a “Challenge Round” playdown. “[The National Championship Team selection playdown system is not geographically based. The National Championships field will be ten teams providing there are at least fourteen entries. If there are thirteen or fewer entries then the National Championships field will be eight teams.” (Registration Page). In the event that there are ten teams, “[f]ive Nationals spots will be awarded to the top five Order of Merit (OOM) teams. . . . Four National Championship spots will be determined at a single Challenge Round event. The remaining Nationals spot will be awarded to a High Performance Program Discretionary Selection.” In the event there are eight teams, then “[f]our Nationals spots will be awarded to the top four Order of Merit (OOM) teams. . . . Three National Championship spots will be determined at a single Challenge Round event. The remaining Nationals spot will be awarded to a High Performance Program Discretionary Selection.” (See Registration Page).

As we saw with 2017 U.S. Nationals, there is a serious lack of participation in the U.S. Nationals Challenge Rounds. The women’s Challenge Round only had six (6) teams competing, and the men’s Challenge round had thirteen (13). (see http://www.teamusa.org/USA-Curling/Features/2016/December/30/Nationals-Challenge-Rounds-begin-next-week). Why is this? Why do more curlers not want to compete at U.S. Nationals? Is it because winning Nationals no longer guarantees that the team will represent the USA at World Championships? Or, is it because, even if a team has a strong showing (like winning silver) at U.S. Nationals, they still may get overlooked for a HPP team when it comes to deciding who goes to Olympic Trials? (see, e.g., how Team Birr was overlooked for an Olympic Trials spot, but ultimately won a spot at the Trials after filing a right-to-play grievance).

It is clear that the current system leaves a lot to be desired and can be confusing to curlers given the amount of dissimilarity amongst the various national championships. Therefore, I propose adopting the system used by USA Fencing in order to determine what curlers qualify for national championships as such an approach would likely satisfy the goals of increasing participation in the sport up to, and including, the highest levels as well as growing the sport and continuing to sustain international competitive excellence.

(To be continued….)


Author’s note: This blog is the second in a series discussing how USA Curling qualifies athletes for major events and suggesting changes for the qualification processes to increase participation and heighten the level of competitiveness of American curlers.


The next blog in this series will discuss specifics of my proposed changes to the current curling system based on the one used by USA Fencing and Part 4 will suggest alternate uses for High Performance Program funds. Part 1 of this series, Changes to USA Curling World Team Qualification Process, a Step in the Right Direction, discussed the recent changes that USA Curling made to the World Team qualification process and the disconnect between what those who play the sport and those who are responsible for governing the sport see as being necessary to compete at a high level.



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This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any organizations that the author is affiliated with.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Team Birr Wins Hearing, Headed to USA Curling Olympic Trials

The first article of this blog, A Tale of Three Teams: Clarity Needed in USA Curling's Discretionary Pick Process, was about the slight against Team Birr wherein they were not given a discretionary pick to participate in the upcoming Olympic Trials and how that decision appeared to be nonsensical given the recent history of USA Curling's use of the process. It also discussed the upcoming hearing that Team Birr was going to have, appealing the decision.
Well, that hearing was held on September 21st, and Team Birr announced via their Facebook page that the decision is in and they are headed to Olympic Trials! For all the reasons discussed in my previous post dealing with the issues involved, I am pleased at this outcome and that justice was done! Congrats to Team Birr, and best wishes to all the teams attending the Trials!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Changes to USA Curling World Team Qualification Process, a Step in the Right Direction

Author’s note: This blog is the first in a series discussing how USA Curling qualifies athletes for major events and suggesting changes for the qualification processes to increase participation and heighten the level of competitiveness of American curlers.

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On August 17, 2017, USA Curling announced that the organization was “relaxing” the World Team Qualification Process for the 2017-2018 season. The stated changes to the World Qualification Process are twofold in that now:

·       Any eligible team within the Top 75 in the WCT Order of Merit (OOM, two-year period) on Jan. 31, 2018, can qualify to represent the USA at the 2018 Men’s/Women’s World Championships by winning the 2018 U.S. Men’s/Women’s National Championships.
·       Any eligible team that has earned 40 points in the WCT OOM Year-To-Date rankings by or on Jan. 31, 2018, can qualify to represent the USA at the 2018 Men’s/Women’s World Championships by winning the 2018 U.S. Men’s/Women’s National Championships.


Prior to this change, the standard for the World Team Qualification Process for the 2016-2017 season was as follows:

·       Any men’s and women’s eligible team that wins the 2017 U.S. National Championships and was in the top 25 of the year-to-date World Curling Tour Order of Merit on Jan. 23, 2017, will be named as USA’s team for the respective 2017 World Curling Championship.
·       If a men’s or women’s team that wins the 2017 USA Curling Nationals was not ranked in the WCT Top 25 on Jan. 23, 2017, then USA’s World Championship teams will be the men’s and women’s teams with the highest OOM points total at the conclusion of the Nationals that have placed in the top three in their respective National Championship.


While this change is certainly a step in the right direction, I am inclined to agree with Bill Stopera and the rest of the Athletes Advisory Council (AAC), who proposed (with unanimous support of AAC membership) that “the winners of the 2018 USA Men’s and Women’s Nationals would represent Team USA at the 2018 World Championships, regardless of OOM ranking or WCT points totals[.]” The AAC recommended this in hopes that that the relaxation of the OOM standings requirement “will encourage more teams to compete actively on the World Curling Tour as they pursue their goals of representing their country at the World Championships and the 2022 (and future) Olympic Games.” (see Press Release). Unfortunately, however, the AAC’s suggested policy change was denied as “[t]he final decision was made by Director of High Performance Derek Brown and approved by USA Curling CEO Rick Patzke.” (See Press Release).

Given the aforementioned information, along with the recent slight against Team Birr concerning Olympic Trials, it has become increasingly obvious that there is a disconnect between what those who play the sport and those who are responsible for governing the sport see as being necessary to compete at an elite level. So, the question must be asked: what is the best way to determine which athletes compete, and ultimately represent the United States, at the highest levels? Changes are necessary as the current system is confounding, nonsensical, and generally prohibits athletes from achieving their goals, unless they have a blessing from HPP Director Derek Brown or USA Curling CEO Rick Patzke.

While the USA Curling press release mentioned that “Brown carefully considered all of the input from the advisory group and believes this outcome is in the best interest of USA Curling’s strategic goals of both growing the sport and continuing to sustain international competitive excellence. . . . this decision is more about relaxing the standards to a level at which dedicated teams can make an additional push to be able to qualify versus lowering the standards to where anybody can just show up and qualify for the World Championships.” (see Press Release). However, the AAC also wants to encourage more participation by American curlers on the Word Curling Tour and give more teams a chance to potentially represent their country on the world stage at the 2022 Olympics and the world championships. These goals, while admirable in their own rights, hold potentially significant conflict with one another and interpretation would depend on individual biases.

One side (the AAC, and I suspect, much of the rank-and-file membership of USA Curling) has stated that it wants to increase participation in the sport up to, and including, the highest levels. The other side (USA Curling, via HPP Director Brown and CEO Patzke) states that it is concerned with balancing “both growing the sport and continuing to sustain international competitive excellence.” Another consideration that was stated in the press release but not dealt with in depth was that one of the considerations in changing the rule but not accepting the AAC’s recommendation was “the fact that the U.S. Olympic Committee is instituting a new tiered funding approach for high performance programs that includes the opportunity for National Governing Bodies to qualify for multi-year funding commitments based upon several factors, including world championship medal success.” (Press Release, emphasis mine).

I propose that both sides’ goals could be met by adopting the system used by USA Fencing where there are multiple divisions based on skill level, each with its own championship and regional events (with appropriate modifications for curling, of course). Furthermore, The funds supporting the HPP teams should be awarded to the most skilled teams who desire to attend specific events, but may be prohibited by the cost of international travel.



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This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any organizations that the author is affiliated with.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Tale of Three Teams: Clarity Needed in USA Curling’s Discretionary Pick Process


What does it actually take for American curlers to represent USA Curling at an elite level? Given recent occurrences at the 2017 National Championships (“Nationals”) and the announcement of the teams selected to compete at the upcoming 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials (“Trials”), there have been some questions among curlers regarding this process. One of the major sources of confusion is that of the discretionary pick process used by USA Curling. The discretion exercised by USA Curling in selecting teams to compete at an elite level has produced much uncertainty. A shining example of the issues with the discretionary pick process can be seen by comparing the cases of Team Birr (Blaine, MN), Team Wood (Parker, CO/California), and Team Leichter (Boston, MA).

USA Curling recently announced the teams who would be competing at Trials. The men’s teams included the John Shuster, Brady Clark, Craig Brown, and Heath McCormick rinks. Noticeably absent from the list was the Todd Birr rink. Team Birr, with the lineup of Todd Birr (skip), Rich Ruohonen (vice), John Benton (second), and Tom O’Connor (lead) earned a silver medal at the 2017 Men’s Nationals, losing in the final game to Team Shuster—the only men’s team who automatically qualified for Trials. At Nationals, Team Birr also claimed victories over some of USA Curling’s High Performance Program (HPP) teams, including the three teams aside from Team Shuster selected to attend Trials. Team Birr also had a respectable number of Order of Merit (OOM) points for the 2016-2017 season. However, despite all of this success, Team Birr did not receive a discretionary pick to compete at Trials.

In comparison with Team Birr, Team Wood, which, at the time of 2017 Nationals, consisted of Becca Wood (skip), Auria Moore (vice), Porsche Renae Stephenson (second), and Donna Umali (lead) was granted a discretionary pick to attend the 2017 Women’s Nationals. This was a remarkable choice for USA Curling given that Team Wood attended the tournament with no OOM points and zero games won in the Nationals Challenge Round or at any World Curling Tour competition prior to Nationals and its Challenge Round. While both Team Birr and Team Wood are talented, the granting of a discretionary pick for Team Wood, but withholding its use for Team Birr in their respective venues displays a perplexing standard that may not support Team USA’s quest for international competitive excellence.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the skips of Team Birr and Team Wood, and they were both surprised by the discretionary pick process, albeit, for very different reasons. In the case of Team Wood, Becca Wood admits she was surprised by Team Wood’s receipt of the discretionary pick, but did not question it as she believes, though their team did not win any games or have any OOM points, their dedication and desire shone through when they competed during the playdowns.

Paradoxically, Todd Birr admits his team was surprised at not receiving a discretionary pick to attend Trials, despite Team Birr’s outstanding silver medal performance against the 2014 U.S. Olympic Curling Team (Team Shuster) at the 2017 Nationals as well as their solid season prior to Nationals (which included wins against some of the top teams on the World Curling Tour). Because the standard is so vague, Team Birr’s attorney, Marcus Beyer, sent a letter to Rick Patzke, CEO of USA Curling, requesting reconsideration of Team Birr’s exclusion from Trials; but, the reconvened Trials selection committee upheld their decision to refuse Team Birr’s request, relying on a provision in the Selection Procedures that stated the committee “reserves the right to not add any discretionary selections if they feel it is in the best interests of international excellence” as long as the minimum number of required teams has been met. No other reasoning for not allowing Team Birr to compete at Trials was given.

This situation is also odd given that when the Alex Leicther rink (Boston, MA; Alex Leichter (skip), Martin Sather (vice), Nate Clark (second), Ryan Hallisey (lead)) was given a discretionary pick to participate in the men's field at 2017 Nationals despite not qualifying through the Challenge Round, the USA Curling press release announcing the decision stated that the pick was “awarded to Alex Leichter (Boston) as the next highest ranked OOM team that competed in the Challenge Round.” Like Team Leichter, Team Birr is the next highest ranked OOM team that competed at Nationals (where they won silver) and yet they did not receive a discretionary pick although a spot still remains available.

With the response from the Trials selection committee to Attorney Beyer and Team Birr, confusion has only increased. Many curlers, including myself, are wondering how it could not be in the best interests of international excellence to have the Nationals runner-up who (as per Todd Birr) had a winning record against two teams that were selected (Brown and Clark), and an even record against a third (Team McCormick) during the 2016-2017 season, be included as the allowed fifth team for Trials. It is especially strange given the documented conflicts of interest within the Selection Committee that Attorney Beyer noted in Team Birr’s official complaint with regard to the matter.

Even some of USA Curling’s own board members have recognized that there is a problem with team selection. According to the minutes of the USA Curling Board of Directors meeting held on July 10, 2017 via teleconference, “[f]ive board members indicated concerns regarding the Olympic Trials selection process.” (July 10, 2017 Board Meeting Minutes, page 1, section 2a.) The July 10th board meeting was held in response to the “chatter, both via emails and social media” regarding the Trials selection process. . . . All of this is directly related to the Team Birr request to be included as a discretionary selection in the upcoming Olympic Trials.” (Board Meeting Minutes, page 1, section 2a.)

At this meeting, “The Board spent a significant amount of time debating specifics of the matter and potential implications of what has been on social media by Team Birr’s attorney versus what was considered by the selection committee. It was noted several times that the committee had significantly more information to consider than has been included in the Team Birr letter, and the committee’s deliberations are considered confidential.” (Board Meeting Minutes, page 2, section 4 (emphasis added).) While the deliberations may be considered confidential, the information to be considered when making discretionary selections for Trials is straightforward and set by Section 2.2 of the Selection Procedures. Further, it should be noted that a failure to comply with its own Selection Procedures disseminated to the athletes is highly problematic for USA Curling and could ultimately result in Team Birr’s bid for a Trials spot being successful, even if their current challenge under Article 15 of USA Curling’s bylaws failed. All of this is due to Team Birr’s option to file a grievance with United States Olympic Committee (USOC) under section 9 of the USOC’s bylaws. (See USA Curling Bylaws, pg. 48, Section 15.11).


Whether or not Team Birr will take that step remains to be seen. Fortunately, this step is not without precedent. There have been many challenges to national governing body (NGB) decisions regarding selection for Olympic Trials and other major events. While it is a difficult path to pursue and many of these challenges are unsuccessful, the ones that tend to result in change are the ones where the NGB did not follow its own selection procedures (See Komanski v. USA Cycling, AAA 01 15 0004 9907 (Nov. 15, 2015) (Jeffrey G. Benz, Arb.), where USA Cycling was forced to substitute Lauren Komanski in place of another athlete as a discretionary selection). Although, this is a lengthy process for Team Birr, their cause is worthy, and hopefully, will spark change and more transparency in the processes used by USA Curling to determine who competes at a national level, and ultimately who has earned the right to represent the U.S. on the international stage in our sport. Team Birr is not asking to be named America’s Olympic team for curling in 2018; they’re merely asking for the chance to show that they’ve got what it takes to rightfully win and be named that team—similar to how both Team Wood and Team Leichter were given the chance to show that they were capable of competing at a national level.


This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any organizations that the author is affiliated with.

Problems with USA Curling’s Championship Qualification Processes

Presently, the current USA Curling system has multiple national championships, including, U18 Nationals, Junior Nationals, U.S. Nationals...