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.

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