Labrador Olympian Mark Nichols recalls his Turin experience
© The Telegram file photo
Like millions of other Canadians from coast to coast, Mark Nichols watched the Winter Olympics this year from the comfort of his home.
Unlike those other Canadians, Nichols could place himself in the shoes of athletes like Jennifer Jones and Brad Jacobs, as they stood on the podium and received their gold medals.
That’s because in 2006, Nichols, who was born and raised in Labrador City, won a gold medal himself. Even though that was eight years and two Olympic games ago, the memories are just as fresh today as they were back then.
“I can’t believe it’s been eight years and, obviously, with the Olympics …the memories come back pretty easily,” says Nichols.
“It’s pretty amazing to think that we were able to accomplish something that not a lot of other people get to do in their life.”
Nichols, along with fellow Labradorian Mike Adam, was part of Team Gushue, which represented Canada in men’s curling at the Turin Olympics.
The team was comprised of Nichols, Adam, Skip Brad Gushue, Russ Howard and Jamie Korab. Everyone but Howard was from Newfoundland and Labrador.
The road to Turin Italy was an unexpected path for the young team. Going into the Olympic trials in December 2005, few people had them pegged to be the favourites amongst the 10 contenders.
“We were either the last team or the second last team to … qualify for the Olympic trials,” Nichols recalls.
“If you were going to rank the ten teams in the field, we’d probably be … six, seven, or eight.”
The Gushue team, however, didn’t play like a sixth-rank team at the trials. After the tournament round robin, they had a record of 8-1, good enough for first place and a bye to the finals.
“It’s just probably one of the best weeks of curling of our lives, I think,” says Nichols.
“We went in there with no pressure on us because we weren’t one of the favourites, we weren’t a (Kevin) Martin or a Randy Ferbey . . .”
In the finals, Nichols and his team-mates were pitted against the formidable Jeff Stoughton, who’s team finished 7-2 in round robin, and who defeated John Morris in the semifinals.
The match between Team Stoughton and Team Gushue turned into a nail biter. Stoughton had the hammer in the 10th and final end, with Gushue ahead 8-6.
Stoughton needed a deuce to send the game into extra ends, or three to win. But Gushue, Nichols and company forced their opponents to score one rock, turning the underdog team from Newfoundland and Labrador into Canada’s squad.
Now the pressure was on.
Whenever a curler puts on a Team Canada uniform, they are no longer considered underdogs; they are now gold medal hopefuls.
“It’s a different beast altogether for sure . . . we tried as much as we could to say ‘it’s just another curling event,’” says Nichols. “And I knew we were fooling ourselves because for me, personally, it wasn’t just another curling event, it was the Olympics and it’s hard to get that out of your mind.”
Olympic Curling began in Turin Feb. 13, 2006.
For Newfoundlander’s and Labradorians, it was a tremendous moment of pride. Medal or no medal, it was exciting to see a group of men from such a small province competing at sports’ highest level. Everyone had a case of Olympic fever.
“Being over in Italy, we couldn’t really get a sense of how big it was back home,” recalls Nichols. “But when we got back it was just . . . it was crazy, the messages we got. I got messages from people up in Labrador . . . from Makkovik, from people in Goose Bay, from people in Lab. City.”
The team finished round-robin play with a respectable 6-3 record, which was enough to earn a spot in the semifinals, where they would face Team USA.
The boys from N.L., along with Howard, flexed their muscles against the States, winning by a score of 11-5. Nichols, who wasn’t satisfied with his play during the round robin, curled an incredible 94 per cent.
On Feb.24, just two days after their semi-final win, Team Gushue faced Finland’s Markku Uusipaavalniemi, who had finished the round robin in first place.
If Nichols and his teammates had no idea how much hype surrounded them back in their home province, a pregame phone call was about to change all that.
“It was a few hours before our game. We had our usual team meal . . . Brad actually got a phone call from Danny Williams . . .calling to wish us luck . . . then he told Brad they were shutting schools down,” recalls Nichols of that historic day.
“We were like, ‘holy cow, that’s pretty rare that you’re going to shut schools down to watch a curling game.’ Looking back on it, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Despite getting a phone call from the premier of the province telling the team’s skip schools were closed so everyone could watch their match, Nichols felt a sense of calm before the big event.
“The most nervous I felt was during the semi-final game. For whatever reason, I had a feeling of calm and excitement for the final, as opposed to a nervousness feeling,” says Nichols.
Finland began the opening end with the hammer, and took advantage by scoring a deuce. Although it wasn’t the start everyone was hoping for, Nichols and his team- mates kept their composure.
“A deuce early on in the game, I don’t think any top team would push the panic button. We got a long game left,” says Nichols.
In the second end, Team Canada scored two of their own with the hammer, before stealing single points in ends three and four.
The sixth end was the one that put the gold medal around the necks of Nichols and his team, in a most unexpected fashion.
With Team Canada holding the hammer, they would go onto score an incredible six points in the end. Many still remember Nichols’ incredible runback shot where he hit two guards and took out Finland’s rock in the ring, without even nudging any of his own.
“It was more a little bit of blind luck. We called the runback (but) I didn’t like the shot,” recalls Nichols.
Brad Gushue actually had an easy draw to score seven, but the excitement of the moment forced him to throw the rock right through the ring. But the miss didn’t matter; with Canada up 10-3 it would take a miracle for Finland to come back.
“We knew we weren’t going to lose the Olympics after we saw all those rocks in the ring . . . he was just so excited, he threw a little bit too hard,” says Nichols.
“It was almost like a weight lifted off our shoulders, we just got to get through the next couple of ends.”
After the eighth end, with the score 10-4, Finland conceded and the teams shook hands. The team from Newfoundland and Labrador accomplished what once seemed impossible: winning the Olympic gold.
The wild Olympic ride wasn’t over for the team after receiving their gold medals. Once they returned home, Newfoundland and Labrador were all too eager to shower the golden boys with accolades.
Nichols and his teammates were given honorary doctorates from Memorial University, had a highway, as well as a group of streets named after them.
“The street names and stuff was totally a shock,” says Nichols. “You’re always told when you’re at the Olympics, that when you get home it’s going to be crazy and you’re going to have to manage your time well, but it’s hard to prepare for that sort of stuff.”
Gradually, the Team Gushue members went their separate ways. Nichols took a year off from curling between 2011 and 2012.
Then, in the spring of 2012, Stoughton called Nichols and asked him to join his team out in Winnipeg.
Nichols, dreaming about going back to the Olympics in 2014, decided to go out there and give it a shot.
The Stoughton team made it to the Sochi Olympic trials, but finished with a disappointing 3-4 record, which eliminated them after the round robin.
Nichols and his pregnant wife still live in Winnipeg, where he works as a personal trainer. Whether or not he will make a run for the 2018 Olympics, he has yet to decide.
“What team I’ll be on, or if I will be on a team, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” says Nichols.