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Her Olympic dream fell short twice, but curler’s still trying

Photo by Rick Patzke, U.S. Curling

The curler — that 5-foot-1 woman over there with the broom on the ice sheet — is an MBA and a General Mills marketing honcho.

The curler who has barely missed two Winter Olympics — one because her citizenship issues weren’t resolved and the other by a no-good, rotten two inches — is already looking toward the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Not obsessively, but pointedly.

“It’s just starting to creep into the back of our minds now,” Allison Pottinger said the other day, sitting in one of those big, stuffed, dark, leather chairs at the St. Paul Curling Club. “I think we all have [the next Winter Olympics] circled in the back of our mind, but no one’s put it officially on the calendar yet.”

Trade analyst by day, award-winning curler by night
Spoken like a cautious woman. Spoken like someone who knows the uncertainty of the markets.

“I’m a trade analytics analyst,” said Pottinger, as if quoting from a “Dilbert” cartoon. “It’s the world’s worst title, I know, but that’s my title.”

It may be the title that she carries when she’s in her business clothes every day in Golden Valley, figuring out price points for “Big G” cereals, yogurt and fruit snacks. But the title that’s dodged her and that’s simpler to understand is: U.S. Olympian.

At 34, Pottinger, who lives in Eden Prairie, is the most decorated curler in U.S. history, having been on eight U.S. national championship teams. She captured No. 8 last month. That was her ticket — along with her three teammates — to the World Women’s Curling Championships, which begin Saturday in Vernon, British Columbia.

“Did you see the curling today?” Jay Leno once joked on his late-night show during an Olympics when curling gets its 15 hours of fame every four years. “Pretty exciting. The gold medal ended up going to a Brazilian cleaning team.”

If only Pottinger could chuckle about the Olympics.

She grew up in Canada, learned how to play the game with the large rock and the brooms and the echo-y shouting. When her father was transferred to Appleton, Wis., Pottinger — then Allison Darragh — moved with her family there.

“We had to look Wisconsin up on the map,” Pottinger said, immediately endearing her to all Minnesotans.

That was 1992. She was 18 and getting good at curling. She knew some U.S.-based players. She could play with them in some competitions. And her team won the U.S. Olympic trials in 1998.

No quick resolution of citizenship issue
But Allision Darragh wasn’t yet a U.S. citizen. Her team went to the Nagano Winter Games to represent the U.S. Pottinger wasn’t allowed to play.

Oh, she tried to expedite the citizenship process, like so many athletes in so many countries from higher-profile sports do. You know, like every Russian ice dancer ever somehow turns up skating for Canada. But Pottinger fell short.

Photo by Rick Patzke, U.S. Curling

“I did the petition, and I contacted my senator,” she said. “But there were no magical Canadian figure-skating strings.” 

So, she traveled to Japan as a spectator.

“It was kind of hard to watch,” she said.

Life went on. She was a key member of a couple of solid teams, even won a world title in 2003. And in 2005 — at the trials for the 2006 Torino Games — Pottinger’s team was favored to win the U.S. Olympic trials.

They lost on the last throw when their opponents’ rock was two inches closer to the sweet spot of curling, the blue circle on the ice sheet. Two inches.

“It took me a second to register that ours wasn’t closer,” said Pottinger, who is married to another top local curler, Doug Pottinger, and the mother of Lauren, 16 months. “After that, I wanted to throw my shoes in the closet and be done.”

Didn’t happen. Won’t happen.

World championships next step toward Olympic goal
On Saturday, the Worlds begin. A good showing for her team — with skip Debbie McCormick — would continue to build the momentum toward Vancouver. While those Winter Olympics are nearly two years away, the U.S. trials will begin Feb. 21, 2009, just 11 months away, in suburban Denver.  Whoever wins the trials will have a full year to prepare, to market themselves, to make personal appearances to promote a sport that, in 2006, was drawing nearly 1 million TV viewers daily on NBC and its cable outlets.

She’s a citizen now. That’s all set. All that remains are two inches. If she crosses that divide, the analytics analyst will finally have the title she wants: Olympian.

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