VANCOUVER – One fan wore nothing but red body paint, underwear and a sly smile as he carried his “Marry Me Cheryl Bernard” sign around.
Another, dressed for the more frigid temperatures inside the Vancouver Olympic Centre, donned a kilt and yelled, “We love you Cheryl!” whenever the Canadian curler fired a stone or just whenever it struck his fancy.
A third, yet more subtle, observer simply tossed a bouquet of roses in Bernard’s direction after a blowout victory.
Yes, the Cheryl Bernard bandwagon is in full swing.
Bernard, who steamrolled the competition on her way to an 8-1 round-robin record at the Vancouver Games, will return to the ice Thursday for a semifinal date with two-time Olympic silver medallist Mirjam Ott of Switzerland.
The two teams met Feb. 16 in what was Bernard’s Olympic debut. The game was tied in the 10th end when the Calgary skip drew to the house with her hammer to register the 5-4 win.
The last-stone victory was the first of many for the Canadian skip, who made winning in the 10th or even 11th end look so routine throughout the Games she earned the nickname “Last Shot.”
After beating Switzerland in the round robin, and setting the stage for her rise to the No. 1 playoff seed, Bernard said she didn’t think she’d seen the last of Ott.
“They’ll be there (in the playoffs),” she said at the time, “so we’ll have to play them again, no doubt.”
They will play again, but Bernard said her rink will hold one major advantage by virtue of finishing first in the 10-team field.
“What we’re happy with is that we get to start off with the hammer,” she said. “That’s important to us, all week that’s been something we’ve been trying to negotiate with our draw to the button.”
Just two measly wins away from an Olympic gold medal and a permanent place in Canadian Winter Games lore, members of Bernard’s rink said they’re doing their best to take the enormous task ahead of them in stride.
“We don’t think about that,” said coach Dennis Balderston. “This team for a long time now has looked at it one game at a time and so we will not talk about one game from gold, we will talk about our next game and then we boil it down from there.”
Balderston feels confident in his team’s game heading into the playoffs, despite the fact Bernard has been battling a cold.
“They’re shooting very well, they’re in a very good comfort zone and they’re not afraid to lose,” he said.
O’Connor said her team certainly expects to be in tough against Ott.
“We’re going to have to have really good rock placement,” she said. “I think getting draw weight early (is important.)”
Bernard viewed her rink, which features O’Connor, second Carolyn Darbyshire and lead Cori Bartel, as an underdog heading into the Games. But most observers had the hometown skip in the mix for gold with Ott, defending Olympic champion Anette Norberg of Sweden and reigning world champion Bingyu Wang of China.
To perhaps no one’s surprise, it’s those four rinks that posted the best records in the Olympic round robin and qualified for the tournament semifinals.
That Ott even made the playoff round might strike some as a victory in itself considering how the Swiss started the Olympics.
Ott’s first three games were — in order — against Canada, Sweden, China. She went 0-3.
But the 2008 European champion righted the ship and rattled off six straight victories to close out the tournament.
“The first three we played were all the favourites — the teams that all qualified so we knew we had a hard start and we had very close losses and we were still confident,” she said, adding that even an Olympic veteran can be nervous the first couple of games.
“It was tough for us to keep going on but we did it well and I’m proud of my team.”
As for what she’s expecting against Canada, Ott said a loud crowd and stiff competition sound about right.
“I hope it will be a good game and a tough game and that there are some people cheering a little bit for us,” she said.
In Thursday’s other women’s semifinal, Norberg will take on Wang in a rematch of the 2009 world championship final.
Norberg was in cruise control for the first four games of the Olympics, winning them all and even knocking off China in the process.
But the Swedes were blasted 10-1 by Russia on Saturday and dominated by Canada two days later.
The rink rebounded to win its final two round-robin matches, but whether it’s fully recovered from its swoon remains to be seen.
“Our goal coming here was to be in the playoffs so we are there now so we’re very happy with that,” Norberg said.
She said her rink remembers the world championship defeat to China well, but is capable of playing a much better game.
“We lost the final but that was not one of our best games ever,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll do better this time.”
While Switzerland’s path to the playoffs was unconventional, China’s has taken just as many strange twists and turns.
Chinese national team coach Daniel Rafael, who’s Canadian, publicly blasted the team twice in the past week.
On Monday, Rafael accused the team of not having enough passion for the sport after a surprising round-robin loss to Russia. Rafael also suggested some members of his rink view curling only as a job and plan to quit after the Games.
That followed comments from Rafael last week that some of his players are jealous of the media attention skip Bingyu Wang receives.
On the ice, China also got off to a slow start, dropping a surprising decision to Britain in the rink’s Olympic debut.
But the Chinese were also the only rink to hand Canada a loss in the round robin and may be the major obstacle standing between Bernard owning the podium.
Canada’s women have not won Olympic gold since Sandra Schmirler in 1998. Kelley Law and Shannon Kleibrink picked up bronze in 2002 and 2006 respectively.