Two decades after death, Schmirler's legacy a merger of winning and motherhood

The Canadian Press

Sara England is accustomed to people she doesn't know telling her they held her when she was a baby.

The 22-year-old knows that's how they connect to her mother still revered by the Canadian curling community.

Sandra Schmirler died 20 years ago Monday from cancer at age 36. Her legacy encompasses a gold standard every Canadian women's team strives to match in competition.

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The Sandra Schmirler Foundation has raised $4.7 million for live-saving equipment in over 60 neonatal intensive care units across Canada.

But those who knew Schmirler believe she would consider daughters Sara and Jenna her greatest achievement.

"Every person across Canada I think knows my mom," Sara said. "My sister and I were so young when she passed that we really didn't get to know her and don't really have memories. I know that's hard for some people to hear and understand.

"When people come up and talk to me about her, memories and stories and all that kind of stuff, that's how I get to know her even more."

While Colleen Jones was racking up Canadian titles at the turn of this century, she rebuffed suggestions hers might be greatest women's curling team in Canada.

Jones said then "we'll never know how good that team might have been."

"That team" was Regina's Schmirler, Jan Betker, Joan McCusker and Marcia Gudereit.

In a span of five years between 1993 and 1998, the four women claimed three Canadian championship, three world titles and an Olympic gold medal in Nagano, Japan.

"At that period of time, nobody could touch them," Hall of Fame men's curler Russ Howard stated. "Any where in the world."

Curling was officially added to the Olympic program in 1998 after years as a demonstration sport.

Schmirler's in-off to win the 1997 Canadian trials and wear the Maple Leaf in Nagano is still a staple of curling highlight reels.

"She never met a shot she didn't like," Howard said. "Extremely good hitter, good drawer and strategist."

Schmirler won her first world title in 1993 in Geneva, where Howard also skipped Canada to men's gold.

Schmirler's infectious smile and her team's ability to joke at its own expense endeared them to people, but it hid an inner swagger.

"They knew deep down they were going to beat you," Howard said. "That's why they're having fun."

Howard introduced Schmirler's team to rock matching — looking for a set of eight consistent stones — which was a novel strategy at that time.

That and her team's athleticism helped put them ahead of the curve for 1998, he said.

"They set the bar for I think a lot of the female teams," Schmirler's husband Shannon England said.

"Their success winning that gold medal changed how curling was perceived in the country and how teams compete for it now."

Schmirler was pregnant with Jenna when she lost the 1999 Saskatchewan women's final.

The fame that comes with winning Olympic gold combined with jobs, young families and curling was a lot for the team to manage.

The unanswerable question is how much more success Schmirler and her teammates would have achieved if not for her untimely death.

"I guess we'll never know right?" Gudereit said. "The one thing I do know is that we were best friends on the ice and we were best friends off the ice. We would have continued to be friends forever.

"There was no talk of us going our separate ways or anything like that.

"We were just having our second round of babies. Maybe we might have thought about taking a break with little ones running around. It might have been a little bit too much."

Had they kept up their pursuit of curling glory, more national and international titles were possible.

"How many more? I would say probably at least double what they did," said Robin Wilson, a former national champion who worked for the sponsor of the Canadian women's championship for years.

But just over two years after skipping Canada to its first Olympic gold medal in curling, Schmirler was gone.

Sara is a competitive curler competing at a provincial level.

Her mother's triumphs were in the pre-digital era, so Sara hasn't watched a lot of footage of Sandra curling.

What Sara treasures is an audio recording of Sandra singing "Part of Your World" from the "The Little Mermaid" soundtrack while Sandra was in hospital giving birth to Jenna.

The Sandra Schmirler Foundation telethon for neonatal care is a fixture of opening weekend at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts.

It's common for a handful of women competing at the national championship to be in various stages of pregnancy, which makes Schmirler's legacy all the more poignant.

"Obviously I wasn't around much when she was playing, but I think a big one was proving that mothers can be competitive athletes and successful athletes," Sara said.

There were all those big wins too.

"She did set those standards pretty high," said Kerri Einarson, the skip of this year's national women's champion competing in the world championship later this month.

"She was amazing. I think all of us around my age always looked up to her. That's something she did for women's curling and all the younger kids.

"Her winning the Olympic gold was something that made kids my age dream about that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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