Q&A with Jill Officer

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Photo from Getty Images, AFP PHOTO / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC

Jill Officer is a Canadian curler from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She is a 5-time Scotties Tournament of Hearts Champion, 2008 World Champion, and 2014 Olympic gold medallist. Check out my interview with her below!

KK: How did you get into curling?

JO: My mom was one of the coordinators for the junior league at Rossmere Curling Club, and when I was ten years old I was on the spare list for a couple of years. I was always there because my brother and sister curled in the league as well, and there was a spot that opened up on a team. I really wanted to play and my mom thought I was too young but one of her friends told her to let me play. Then when I was twelve, my mom put together a team for me and I skipped with very little success. [Laughs] I was always around the club because my mom and grandparents curled. I was either there or the hockey rink because my brother played hockey. I always said I had a more ability to curl so I stuck with that.

KK: Did you look up to any athletes growing up?

JO: When we were in juniors it was the era of Sandra Schmirler. When we won the Canadian Juniors in ’94, Sandra and her team had won their second Scotties and world title. They won back to back world championships in ‘93 and ’94. The next curling season we played in a few women’s events, and in one of them we actually beat [Schmirler’s team]. I remember thinking that that was such a big deal. I just remember being so excited and phoning my parents collect and telling them. Then a few months later we actually went and competed in Bern, Switzerland, and Sandra’s team was there. They had been there before and they took us under their wing and showed us around the little town of Bern. They invited us out to dinner one night and I looked up to them already, and thought it was really cool. Sandra also commentated on our junior final on CBC. I always felt like I looked up to her and her team partly because they took us under their wing and showed us they were just normal people. I think all of that just made me realize that maybe I had the chance to win the Olympics too. It was also the era of Connie Laliberte and Janet Arnott, so I looked up to them as well.

KK: How did you get back into curling after graduating from Creative Communications [at Red River College]?

JO: I had no plans of curling, and I got a call in September from a lady in Brandon and she asked if I would be interested in joining her team skipped by Linda VanDaele. I didn’t think I had the time and she told me they were only playing in one bonspiel and zones. Then I thought okay I should be able to handle that, so we played in the bonspiel, won our zone and went to provincials in 2002. We went undefeated in the round robin and lost to Jennifer Jones in the 1-2 game, and then we beat Lois Fowler in the 2-2 game. We ended up losing the provincial final to Jennifer Jones, so for a team that hardly played at all we had a really great year. It was exciting and Jennifer asked me to be their fifth at the Scotties which were in Brandon where I was working. I ended up taking time off from my reporting job to be the fifth player for Jennifer’s team in the Scotties in Brandon. Then the next year I played with Lois Fowler and the year after that I got back with Jen and we won the Scotties in 2005. We were part of the national team, so it just kind of evolved that way.

KK: What was your favourite moment in your curling career?

JO: Fortunately, there’s a lot of favourite moments for me. Going to the Olympics was obviously the pinnacle of what we have ever done and it was always our goal to get there. I almost feel like there were a few big moments for me in curling between winning the Olympic trials in Winnipeg and winning Olympic gold. Obviously winning the gold medal was super exciting, but I actually remember the semi-final because I think there was more emotion by the end of that game. It was a big game because winning meant we were guaranteed a medal and losing meant potentially no medal at all. We were also playing Great Britain in the semi-final, which many people predicted would be the gold medal game. We had to draw to the four foot for the win and it was super nerve wracking. My blood was pumping through my body when Jen came down to get ready to throw the rock. I just remember her taking her time and cleaning her rock twice like how she always does, especially on a big shot. I just remember thinking just throw the rock, just throw the rock, just throw the rock, and when she threw it, I actually thought it was a little bit heavy out of her hand. I was a little bit worried and then it started to slow down. We actually had to sweep it really hard from about three-quarters of the way to the house into the four foot. The whole thing was just nerve wracking. I don’t ever remember sweeping such an important draw and having so much responsibility as a sweeper. When it stopped in the four foot it was pure jubilation. It was so exciting that we had a medal. Regardless of what colour it was, we had an Olympic medal and that was super special. I almost feel like that moment was the biggest moment because it meant that we had a medal, it was such a tight game, and it came down to that absolute last rock.

KK: What training and preparation did do after you won the trials [to go to the Olympics]?

JO: We sat down immediately the next day with all the national team leaders and basically planned out what they thought would be the best schedule for us to be ready to play in Sochi. Ultimately, we laid out a schedule that included a bit of a break over the Christmas holidays because there was so much leading up to the trials. It was so exciting winning the trials at home in Winnipeg. We started being recognized a lot more than before so it was important to take a break over the Christmas holidays and enjoy the win. When January came around we played in the Continental Cup, came home, and then left about two weeks prior to the start of the Olympics. We stopped in Ottawa and the men’s provincials were going on there so we had the opportunity to practice on some arena ice. Then we went to Lucerne, Switzerland, practiced and just adjusted to the time change. From there we flew to Sochi. There’s not a lot of events to play in around that time of year, so it was good to play in the Continental Cup. It was in an arena and we played against a few of the other Olympic teams. We had three days off before the Olympics, which was a big break, but it was okay because we trained a lot in Ottawa and Lucerne.

KK: Was there a moment during the gold medal final [at the Olympics] where you knew you were going to win the game?

JO: The gold medal game was the only time that I was ever worried about what was going to happen. It was the only time that I was nervous that it wasn’t going to work out for us to win the gold medal. Every other game we just went about our business and we were in control and things went smoothly. In the gold medal game there were a couple of times we were in serious trouble and Jen bailed us out. There were a couple of times that I was really worried [Sweden] would score a bundle on us but we got out of it. In the last end we were up three, so at that moment we kind of all knew but we didn’t really say anything on the ice. We just stayed focused, but I think after the ninth end we pretty much knew that we should be winning that game. When Jen threw her last shot in the gold medal game it wasn’t nearly as nerve wracking versus the last rock in the semi-final game

KK: What was it like after you won the gold medal game?

JO: Some of it was a blur afterwards, but we celebrated out on the ice right away. Our coach and fifth player came down and we had a flower ceremony and a podium ceremony right away in the venue. We had to line up for that and I think we sang O Canada, which was kind of a blur. It was nice to have the podium ceremony at that time. We didn’t get our medals until two days after we won. I remember going to the locker room [after the ceremony] and we had already planned for someone to go pick up some food for us at the dining hall in the athlete’s village. They went and got us McDonald’s because we had been refraining from eating it the whole time until the gold medal game was done. I remember going to the locker room and we all had McDonald’s sitting in our chairs and we just ate it happily. [Laughs] Then we went to Canada House which is a place where family and friends of the athletes can meet up with other Canadian families. They have beer, wine, food, and snacks that are all Canadian so it’s kind of like home away from home. We met up with our families and friends at Canada house and we celebrated and watched the end of the women’s hockey game. They played that night in the gold medal game too.

KK: What was the biggest disappointment in your curling career and how did you overcome it?

JO: I might have a different answer if you asked me five years from now, but I know that I was super disappointed that we lost the semi-final at the Scotties last year. Since just before Christmas, we were playing so consistently as a team. We were playing really well, making lots of great shots, and it was just really disappointing to have probably the most consistent first half of the season we’ve ever had and not win. It was tough too because we had complete control of the semi-final game [in the Scotties] and then in the second half we just let it slip away, so that was really disappointing. It might be one of the biggest disappointments because it’s still fresh. I also think one of the most disappointing things is we haven’t turned our Scotties wins into more world championship titles. We’ve only won one world championship, but the worlds is tough. I will say I am super proud of the silver medal we won after the Olympics because I honestly don’t even know how we did that. Most Olympic athletes don’t perform very well the year after the Olympics. We somehow just found a way to win and won a silver at the worlds and I was pretty proud of that.

KK: How do you balance work, home, and curling life?

JO: Fortunately, I have a part time job with RBC Royal Bank and I’m part of the RBC Olympians program and they hire elite athletes to be community ambassadors. We do public appearances on their behalf and I do a lot of public speaking to kids at schools. I’ve been with RBC Olympians for nine years now and it’s been awesome. We’ve also had a lot of family support. Sometimes you have to sacrifice things, and you have to find a way to make sure you’re staying healthy and recovered. I always have to make sure I’m not getting too tired or exhausted, and at times I have to sacrifice my training to make sure I’m properly recovered.

KK: Is there anything you’d do differently if you had the chance?

JO: There’s probably lots of things I’d do differently. I don’t know if it’s something I could’ve done differently, but I wished that I could’ve had more confidence sooner. I wish I could’ve believed in myself sooner and that I could’ve felt more comfortable with who I am sooner because I think it would’ve translated into my performance. I don’t know how I could’ve done that differently necessarily, but I wished that that was the case.

KK: Are you hoping one day that Camryn will have an interest in curling?

JO: I think it’s important that we expose her to a number of different sports and a number of different arts and just spread it around the best that we can. I actually think that that makes a better athlete. If she wants to curl then that’s great, and if she wants nothing to do with it, I’m okay with that too. At this point we’ve had her in dance for two years now. She’s in gymnastics and we just want to expose her to a number of different things. You read a lot about professional athletes and what sort of stuff they did when they were younger, and they do all sorts of sports. Anything I read says that if they’re going to be successful in one sport, they’re exposed to lots of sports, and whatever she decides to stick with is good with me.

KK: What advice would you give young curlers who want to become elite athletes?

JO: I think one of the biggest things that I try to tell kids is to just believe in themselves and to always be themselves. I almost feel like at my age, even through all the curling that I’ve done, I’m still learning how to be myself on a consistent basis. And to be my complete self. I think if you can teach kids to do that when they’re young, it’s probably going to translate throughout their life. I really try to encourage kids to just be themselves, be strong, and to believe in themselves.

KK: What is your favourite thing about curling?

JO: I have a few favourite things about curling. One of my favourite things is all of the traveling I’ve been able to do. I’ve seen so many places in the world thanks to curling and that’s huge because I’ve always enjoyed traveling. I’ve always wanted to travel to other parts of the world and curling has given me that opportunity. Another one of my favourite things is just the people that I’ve met. I get to be on tour with all of these other curlers, people you get to know over the years, and friends you meet from all over the world. Another favourite thing is just what it has taught me about myself and what it continues to teach me about myself.