"Sweeping’s easy," says Colleen Jones over the phone, just after a practice session in Digby, Nova Scotia. "They say skips can’t sweep but I’m gonna change people’s perception of that."
Jones, 6-time winner of the Canadian Women's Curling Championship as a skip, returns to The Scotties for the first time since 2006, only this time her role has changed. Instead of commanding the house and calling the shots, she's a part of Nova Scotia's front end, playing second for a team skipped by longtime teammate Mary-Anne Arsenault, a team that heads to Kingston, Ontario after taking the Nova Scotia championship with a 6-4 win over Jocelyn Nix.
She's fine with the switch, too. “I’m havin’ a ball," she says with obvious enthusiasm.
To say Jones is coming full circle at this year's gathering of the finest women curlers in Canada might be a bit of a stretch, but there are some dusty memories from long ago that seem at least vaguely familiar for her as she prepares for the looming 2013 Scotties.
“Well, it was in the last century, many, many years ago," she said when asked to tell the tale of the last time she played front end at a national championship. The year was 1979 and Jones was part of a team skipped by Penny Larocque.
"I was, I think, the youngest competitor at the Canadian championships at the time. 19 years and 3 months or something. Really kind of early, early days of women’s curling. It was primitive in comparison. Primitive in terms of what the arena looked like. Really different times back then. We played in Montreal and there were no fans in the stands except, maybe, 200 people."
As a curling youngster, Jones remembers, she and the rest of the front enders had to deal with whapping the heck out of a corn broom in order to try and effect the rock in some way, shape or form. It was a punishing, punishing discipline.
“I remember sweeping with a corn broom at junior championships and having my hands bleed. Sweeping with anything that is not a corn broom is easy sweeping for me," she said, laughing.
Now, at the age of 53, Jones has had to make the change from spending so many years of basically sweeping rocks a short distance in the house, to having to lean on the broom over distances much greater.
“I’m sweeping all the way down," she said insistently, lest there be any question in the minds of the doubters.
After their last appearance at The Scotties as a team in 2006 - where they lost a semi-final to Jennifer Jones - the team split up with Arsenault forming a new squad. It was in the middle of winter last year when Jones and Arsenault, along with vice Kim Kelly, talked about a reformation of sorts, with Arsenault's lead Jennifer Baxter staying on. (Nancy Delahunt played lead on the team that won 5 national championships together)
After a near lifetime of skipping, Jones was happy to hop back aboard and a change in role suited her just fine.
“First off, it was Mary Anne’s team and I was asked to join," she explained. "And I was happy to do that. Secondly, I’ve skipped my entire life, pretty much except in the '70’s. The pressure was draining on me. I don’t care to have that anymore. I wanted to be able to enjoy curling at a different level that I haven’t allowed myself to have."
“Your head is constantly going as a skip," she continued. "The thinking never stops. You’re still thinking at second but not the same way as a skip," she chuckled knowingly. "You get to enjoy. You’re talking to your teammates more. You get to enjoy the game at a different level."
If the mindset of a skip is different from that of a second, the actual shotmaking that's called for is very similar, according to Jones.
“For me, adjusting to second wasn’t an adjustment. You’re throwing the rock the same way you do... the shots are (similar). Really, when you’re skipping, you draw, you hit, you play a couple of soft shots. When you throw second, you draw, you hit, you throw a couple of soft shots. Not any different."
But, back to that little matter of sweeping. Technological advances have allowed for a much more effective and less bloody experience than the one Jones remembers as a young woman. However, it's well-known that to really make a difference in a shot, a sweeper has to have the muscle and the staying power to be a game changer. Jones insists she has no worries there, as she and her mates have met with conditioning coach Neil Hayes twice a week. And he's pushed them. Hard.
“He’s got us doing every excercise that begins with an Eastern Bloc country name," cracked Jones, ever the quote-machine. "Like the Bulgarian lift, the Romanian lift. He has us doing nasty, nasty stuff. He’s helped us a lot. I think I could take on a couple of people in a race, in an arm wrestle, in a bench press, in a squat. Definitely in a bicycle race through the Alps I could definitely take people.”
Last summer, the ex-skipper says, she completed a 2,000 kilometre cycling trek through France and Switzerland. That may just be illustration enough that the oldest woman in the upcoming tournament is ready for the physical grind. As for the mental grind that can also provide a team with its share of pitfalls, few teams, if any, can boast that they match up with the Nova Scotia crew's experience and success.
“For Mary-Anne, Kim and I, what we have to realize is that we are the same players that won the Canadian Championship five times," mused Jones. "That’s still in our bones. That’s in our DNA. That kind of ability to kind of handle pressure is what The Scotties is all about. You know you’ve got the shots. It’s how do you survive the mental roller coaster of the week?”
Experienced, yes. Jaded, no. Jones reveals that even with all that Scotties water under the bridge, there is still plenty of room for excitement to rush through a veteran curler's veins.
“The Scotties is the show. So to be able to go back and play in the arena setting with great ice against a great field is going to be amazing."
“We’re really excited. This is a team that, we’ve been there, done that. That’s not to brag, that’s just the reality. We got to do a lot of stuff in this game. And now, after more or less retirement, we’ve come back in a kind of very cool way to get back to the biggest event in curling. So, that’s just a real thrill."
As for her team's chances, Jones is optimistic, saying they've "sneakily" arrived at a place where they're reasonably happy with the game they are playing.
“We needed the season to work out kinks. We needed the season to figure out roles, to figure out strategy, to figure out how we’re going to make this work together. Yet, I think, every time we stepped out on the ice we had ‘aha’ moments and we knew that we could get to where we needed to go."
Kingston, Ontario, was where they needed to go, in search of another Scotties title, beginning February 16th. Nova Scotia's second, Colleen Jones, heads into the competition attempting to explode the curling myth that skips have a paralyzing fear of hard work with the broom.
“ I love sweeping. I love it," she said.