When an eight-year-old Cheryl Bernard first took to a curling rink, at a time when the rocks she wanted to throw might well have weighed as much as her, she was kindly told to get off the ice because she was too young.
But the ever-stubborn Bernard didn’t relent, proving her mettle to arena organizers by successfully skipping a stone to the end of the sheet.
Now, some 35 years later, the Grande Prairie, Alta.,-born Bernard intends to again prove her worth, this time to Canadians as she competes for gold at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
“You’re playing for Canada, but I don’t take that as pressure,” Bernard says in a recent interview. “I think that’s just a lot more fans than we normally have, which is great.”
Bernard’s path to her first Winter Games hasn’t gone exactly as an Olympic hopeful might have drawn it up.
The daughter of parents who loved and lived to curl, Bernard competed in junior events through her teens.
But by the time the Winter Games came to Calgary in 1988, the then-21-year-old wasn’t hitting the ice all that much.
“I was working a lot then, so not a lot of curling,” she recalls.
While she wasn’t throwing many stones, it was during the Calgary Games that Bernard first became enchanted with the thought of being an Olympian.
“I was running around and enjoying the Olympic fever that was in Calgary so that’s really when I probably started to think a lot about the Olympics,” says Bernard, who curls out of Calgary.
While she played second for a rink that was runner-up in the Alberta provincial tournament that same year, other commitments kept Bernard from giving her all to curling.
“There was 10 years there from 23 to when I was 33 that I, of course, stayed in curling and focused on it but I was very focused on the business that I had,” she says.
“It was really not until after that that I sold the business and put my mind to what my goal was going to be and gave it the energy and the effort that I think you need to.”
Bernard’s curling resume as she watched over her first insurance business – she recently launched her second – wasn’t without accomplishment.
She skipped the Alberta rink at the 1992 Scotties Tournament of Hearts but finished the Canadian women’s curling championship with a record of 4-7.
Bernard returned to the Scotties in 1996 and this time posted a round-robin mark of 7-4, good enough to earn her a spot in the tournament playoff. Bernard’s rink would advance to the final, where it was bested by Marilyn Bodogh’s squad.
That loss was an especially devastating one for Bernard, though she took solace in the fact that she’d be back competing for a national title soon enough.
“I just honestly thought we’d be back again in a couple of years and we’d have another crack at it,” she explains. “It’s funny, as the years went by I realized just how hard it was to get there to start with out of Alberta, and then how hard it is to get to a final and win it. I think it got more painful as time went on rather than easier.”
Eleven years after her runner-up performance, and with a new rink featuring third Susan O’Connor, second Carolyn Darbyshire and lead Cori Bartel, Bernard finally returned to the Scotties in 2007.
Her rink was put together with the Olympics in mind and Bernard said each member brings something special to the table.
“Cori’s a very light person, very social, and I think as much as (the other team members) sometimes find that difficult it’s the best for us because she does keep it light out there and she can crack a joke and we don’t tend to be that way,” she says.
Bernard called Darbyshire, who’s three years older than the skip, “the mom on the team” because she tends to take charge of the planning and looks out for the members of the squad.
As for O’Connor, Bernard said it’s her drive and work ethic that make her such an attractive teammate.
“You put four of the best players together and sometimes you’re not friends. But we seem to have got lucky to have a little bit of both,” says Bernard.
Success, however, didn’t come right away.
At the 2007 Scotties, Bernard’s rink posted a 6-5 round-robin record but was knocked out in a playoff tiebreaker.
Bernard’s rink didn’t even make it that far at the Scotties two years later. An identical 6-5 record wasn’t enough to warrant a playoff berth.
Heading into the Canadian Olympic trials in Edmonton in December, Bernard was something of an afterthought among experts. Three-time Scotties champion Jennifer Jones was deemed the favourite, with 2006 Olympic bronze medallist Shannon Kleibrink also believed to be in the mix for the right to represent Canada at the Vancouver Games.
But it was Bernard who stormed out of the gate to win her first six round-robin matches. Her only loss in the tournament came in a contest already rendered meaningless because her team had clinched a spot in the tournament final.
It was in that final that Bernard, who cemented her reputation as a shot-maker with one clutch throw after another all week long, notched the biggest win of her career.
She drew to the eight-foot with her hammer in the final end against Kleibrink, booking her trip to Vancouver.
After the win, Bernard, still hugging Darbyshire as she reflected, said the years of losing were strangely beneficial in that they taught her and her rink how to win.
“All the learning that we’ve gone through by losing some of the tougher finals, we stuck together no matter what and it was worth it,” she said at the time.
Psychology, and its subsequent impact on victory, has become an important theme for Bernard.
She co-wrote a book with journalist Guy Scholz, titled “Between the Sheets: Creating Curling Champions,” that focuses on the mental aspects of the game.
Bernard has also worked with famed sports psychologist Penny Werthner and credits the University of Ottawa professor with improving her focus.
“I do think it’s a calming effect,” Bernard says
“(Werthner) makes us look at perspective. She makes us look at life like this isn’t the be all, end all. I know maybe lots of fans like to think that players think that (curling) is everything, but that’s not the healthiest way as a team for us to view the trials or the Olympics.”
One of the criticisms levied against Bernard’s rink leading up to the Games has been its lack of international experience.
Never before has Bernard skipped for Canada. Her biggest win on the international stage was at the 2004 Karuizawa Invitational in Japan.
But Bernard says that while she might not have experience representing her country, going up against international rinks isn’t exactly a foreign concept.
“I think what people don’t realize is how much these teams travel and how often we play them,” she says.
“We’ve played China two or three times in the last few years. Every major slam event that we have, we’ve got two or three or four European teams there. I think as much as we internationally haven’t been to a world (championship), we’ve still run into these teams and played them.”
Bernard herself is something of an international resident these days. She, along with husband Terry Meek and stepchildren Evan and Connor, have moved to shiny new digs in San Diego, Calif.
There, the self-confessed fitness buff passes her time playing golf, sailing, kayaking and even taking in Padres baseball.
Just as other commitments kept Bernard away from curling in her younger years, she suspects they’ll do the same as her career winds down.
“These three years leading up (to the Olympics) is burning out our families,” she says.
“I was pretty much set that after this year, if we didn’t make it, that this was probably going to be my last year. Now I don’t know. I’m going to go through this Olympics and I’m going to sit down and maybe we’ll play a year as a team after that. I don’t know.”
A quick look at Canadian Olympic curler Cheryl Bernard and her team:
Team: Cheryl Bernard, Susan O’Connor, Carolyn Darbyshire, Cori Bartel.
Home club:Calgary Curling Club
Olympic competition: Feb. 16-26, 2010
Past Olympic results: First Games.
Did you know?: Bernard co-wrote a book on the psychology of curling, titled “Between the Sheets: Creating Curling Champions.”
Quote: “You’re playing for Canada, but I don’t take that as pressure. I think that’s just a lot more fans than we normally have, which is great.” – Bernard on the expectations that come with representing Canadian curling at the Olympics.