FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The leader of the only U.S. team to win an Olympic curling medal has spent the last several days playing before a mostly empty arena in North Dakota.
Pete Fenson doesn't mind. He still remembers the parade in Bemidji, Minn., that had residents waving brooms and American flags in 2006.
It was part of a frenzy that riveted people not only in the town where Fenson owns a pizza parlor, but TV viewers around the country who first caught on to curling in the 2002 Winter Games. Every Olympic year since has provided a morale boost to the sport that in the U.S. has been played mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
Fenson's team won bronze back in 2006.
"National TV does a lot for anything, right?" Fenson said this week at the U.S. Olympic curling trials in Fargo. "Every four years, curling gets center stage."
It's also the one time when the best curlers take a break from promoting the sport and get serious about the possibility of representing their country. The trials will never be mistaken for the local bonspiel, where participants can laugh off losing on the last shot (in curling vernacular, that's known as a steal for the other team).
That's what the Allison Pottinger-led team did to the Erica Brown-led team in a round-robin game earlier this week. Brown, who has twice qualified for the Olympics, managed a smile when asked about the thrilling ending.
"Short memory," she said. "I don't have time to worry about that one. Maybe 5 seconds. We need to win every game possible and we need to get into the playoffs. It's definitely a grind."
Nicole Joraanstad, a member of Pottinger's team, said the game that saw them rally from a 3-0 deficit after the first end shows the excitement of the sport and the intensity of the decisions at an elite level. Several shots down the stretch were preceded by strategy discussions among team members.
"That's what we play for," said Joraanstad, who qualified for the 2010 Olympics. "We've all been training so hard for this. We all want to get back. Emotions are going to run high and they're only going to be more elevated as the week goes on."
Five men's and four women's teams are competing in Fargo, although because of a world curling point system only the women's winner is guaranteed a trip to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. The men's winner will advance to another qualifying round, in Germany.
There are other world tournaments, Fenson said, but the Olympics is it.
"It's just so incredible," said Fenson, whose team is the only one at the Fargo trials with Olympic medals. "All the things that go on, that are happening, when we're not in the arena are just second to none. It was a great experience and something we will never forget."
USA Curling spokesman Terry Kolesar said the 2002 Olympics were a coming-out party for the sport, and Team Fenson's bronze medal in 2006 boosted American interest even further. Membership in USA Curling has grown 48 percent in the last decade, to 16,000 curlers.
Only about 20 states had curling clubs in 2002, compared with 42 this year, Kolesar said. Three other states hold some type of curling event, she said.
"It shows that the sport is not just growing in Midwest areas that are more traditional curling powerhouses, but it's everywhere," Kolesar said. "It's in Arizona now. There are four clubs in Texas. We've been in Florida."
The curlers and Kolesar say they expected seats to fill up at the 5,000-seat Scheels Arena in the playoff rounds this week, when a strong contingent from Bemidji, in northwestern Minnesota, is expected to cheer on Team Fenson.
"Obviously people remember and it's a fun thing for us to have," Fenson said, asked about being an Olympic hero in Bemidji. "If things go well, hopefully we'll get another whack at it."