Cheryl Bernard has been curling for a very long time. Since she was a little girl, in fact. But not until Friday afternoon did she understand the true meaning of a steal.
The gold medal was hers. Everyone in the building sure thought so, clanging their cowbells and belting out: “We love you, Cheryl!” In the tenth end, when Bernard was still up by two, she was caught on camera smiling that uncontrollable smile, the one athletes get when they know they’re about to win, but are trying not to gloat.
And then she lost.
It didn’t happen in a blink of an eye. It actually took quite a few minutes for her gold to melt into silver, right there in front of thousands of witnesses. But even Anette Norberg, the Swedish skip who ended up with Bernard’s medal, had trouble putting into words exactly what she saw. “It just happened,” she said. “I don’t know how.”
From a strict curling perspective, here’s what happened. In that tenth end, Bernard’s rink was up 6-4 and needed the boss to complete a relatively simple takeout to seal the victory. But she couldn’t knock the second-last Swedish stone out of the house, allowing Norberg to hit for two and send the match into overtime. In the extra end, Bernard had the hammer in hand and two rival rocks in the circle. All she had to do was stick a standard double takeout. Her shot only took out one. 7-6 Sweden. Game over.
That’s the technical explanation. The painful truth is that Cheryl Bernard blew it—and that’s what makes the whole thing so hard to believe. “I had two chances to win that game,” she said afterwards, tears in her eyes. “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Until now, her fans couldn’t have asked for anything more, either. After beating out the best curlers in the country for the chance to represent Canada at the Olympics, Bernard and her Calgary-based teammates (Susan O’Connor, Carolyn Darbyshire, Cori Bartel and alternate Kristie Moore) thrived on home ice against the rest of world. Backed by the rabid, raucous crowds that invaded the curling venue, the Bernard Bunch went 8-1 in the round robin, snuck by Switzerland in the semis, and set themselves up to be the first Canadian female curlers since the Sandra Schmirler squad to taste Olympic gold.
They tasted it. They just weren’t allowed to keep it. “It’s still sinking in,” O’Connor, Bernard’s lead, said right after the loss. “But as much as it hurts a little bit right now, I think maybe tomorrow or in a week or in a month or in a year we’re going to be really, really proud of this. It’s a pretty huge accomplishment and there are a million curlers in Canada that would kill to be in my spot right now.”
She’s right, of course. A silver medalist is hardly a loser, especially when that loss comes against the defending Olympic champions. But as commendable as second place is—and yes, let’s make it clear one more time: silvers are quite an accomplishment—Bernard was in control of that match. The 43-year-old was literally minutes away from standing on the top step of the podium, the big prize around her neck. A silver is the absolute last thing she wanted. “Obviously, I just didn’t throw the last one good enough,” she told reporters. “Eventually, this silver is going to feel great. Just right now, the gold was very close.”
As for what went wrong, Bernard said her final stone in the tenth end just didn’t curl quite enough, probably because it hit a patch of bad ice. The hammer in the eleventh? “It was a pretty routine double,” she said. “It missed by a millimeter. I couldn’t ask for an easier shot, but…”
Bernard, the good skip she is, was quick to accept blame. But her teammates would hear nothing of it. “Cheryl has been so stellar,” Bartel said. “Half an inch—that was the difference between winning and losing that game.” One reporter asked O’Connor what she told Bernard in the moments after their devastating loss. “I’m really glad you asked that,” she answered. “Cheryl is the reason we’re sitting up here now. She is the reason we were at the Olympics. There is nobody in the world that I would rather have throwing last rock for me.”
The people who paid big bucks to watch her compete were equally adoring; during the medal ceremony, they gave their silver medalists a golden ovation. “You’ve just lost a really big game and you still have 6,000 people cheering for you,” O’Connor said. “That’s more why I’m emotional than anything. It’s kind of like when you come off a loss and you do okay until your mom comes and gives you a hug. It’s like that—times a million.”
Bernard also praised the fans, both in the venue and in their living rooms. “Playing at home in front of Canada, we’ll never experience this again,” she said. “It was a chance of a lifetime.”
So, too, was that final rock.