When Olympic gold medal curler Matt Hamilton of McFarland competes in the Men’s World Curling Championships this week in Calgary, Alberta Canada, it will be in part due to his practice time at one of Columbia County’s four curling clubs, the Arlington Curling Club.
Last year, Hamilton and his U.S. teammates including skip John Schuster, lead Matt Landsteiner and third Chris Plys, missed the Worlds because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“And I was really looking forward to playing in Scotland, birthplace of curling, and our team felt really good too,” Hamilton said in a recent interview held at Arlington Curling Club.
“We ran through our national championship and we were kind of thinking we were going to go to the Worlds and have a really good run. Then COVID hit,” Hamilton said. “And we were still optimistic for a little bit that it was going to happen and just everything started heading downhill.”
But in 2021, Hamilton — who is about 20 pounds lighter because he says he’s eating his own cooking and sporting a beard and thick mullet — is looking forward to the Worlds and more thanks to being able to curl at Arlington during the day and play his music while practicing.
Hamilton said he can’t play his music loudly in McFarland at the Madison Curling Club because the sound gets lost in its high ceilings and — oh yeah — they weren’t open and didn’t have ice.
“I found out Arlington was having had ice and there was nothing in Dane County, obviously,” Hamilton said. “I kind of reached out to somebody and then Nina [Roth, another McFarland curler from the US Women’s National Team] and Becca [Hamilton, his sister and a U.S. Women’s Team curler] put it all in place with our USA curling association and Arlington.
“And actually our association paid for our dues this year. . . which I think the practice membership here is like $200 to get a key. But this has been wicked,” Hamilton said. “We had to pay two grand for the ice time and the effort that’s going in. And the fact that I get a private rink to practice, really as many times a week as I want, I’m always scheduling it two or three times because it’s still, you know, a 40-minute drive for me.”
Hamilton practiced through the end of March, when the ice was taken out at ACC. It wasn’t widely know that Hamilton and his sister or Roth were practicing there, either, because ACC wasn’t allowing any spectators despite hosting leagues four nights a week.
“I have a hard schedule two days a week, but I’m making up here an extra one or two more times,” Hamilton said when the interview was conducted in late February. “So I’d say average and like three. It depends — if I go to Duluth and have a practice weekend up there, I might only practice twice, like last week and this week, or I’m leaving this weekend, I’m going to try and get one more practice. And this week for two, but last week I had four — it kind of varies.
“I’ve got a pretty flexible work schedule and kind of see what [work time] looks like. And that kind of dictates my schedule a little bit,” said Hamilton, who works in research and development on products like Black and Decker and George Foreman Grills for Spectrum Brands in Madison.
Extra careful with COVID
While he never contracted COVID-19, Hamilton said he took extra precautions because his wife is a physician’s assistant and didn’t want to give it to her or anyone else.
“My wife is a physician’s assistant . . . in orthopedics, so she’s not like necessarily working with people with confirmed cases of COVID, but you never know what the people that are walking in there with,” Hamilton said.
“And she’s still in a hospital with nurses who are seeing COVID patients. So I felt like I had to be extra, extra careful. Because I never knew if I was going to be a carrier or not, or asymptomatic and pass it along.”
Hamilton said he’s not been inside a restaurant in over a year.
“I’ve been outside at two restaurants last summer, trying to order still to stimulate the economy and whatnot. But we’re going even more above and beyond than most people do because my wife kind of put the fear in me,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know, I’m soft, man. If I ever found out that I was like asymptomatic and gave it to somebody, I couldn’t handle it. Oh my God — I couldn’t live with myself. So that’s the other reason.”
And COVID-19 has impacted him in other ways.
“I’m a social butterfly so this is rough for me personally,” Hamilton said. “I needed like a chicken pox kind of epidemic where it was all like herd immunity and we could get sick together, and recover . . . but personally it’s been tough mentally just because I get so much [from personal contact] — I like to recharge my batteries hanging out with people and my friends. And yeah, I haven’t got to do that plus like just curling on tour and stuff, sometimes you play in some arenas with fans and I just like hamming it up with the fans. I miss that a lot. Yeah. Just being so social, this has not been ideal in my life.”
Another thing that’s not been ideal: the financial strain. Hamilton said he still considers curling a job, even though there hasn’t been much income this year.
“This year . . . my bank account took a serious hit, not playing,” Hamilton said.
“I mean, I wasn’t making a ton of money curling, but I made some winning tournaments and doing well at tournaments and with sponsors and stuff like that,” Hamilton said. “All sponsors pulled this year because, obviously money was tight and then we didn’t play anything. So we definitely took a hit as a squad in that regard. So that was rough. Now, I feel like I’m curling pro bono. Yeah, it’s weird — it’s like I’m playing as a junior again and doing it for me and not for the cash.”
Despite the ability to use ACC to throw stones, Hamilton still feels like he may not be in top shape. He said he’s done a lot of walking with his dogs at the dog park, and even some off-ice training to keep his back and arms strong.
“I was a little worried because normally I’m at like 100 games at this time of the year I’ve played — and that’s just competitive, that doesn’t even include league and practice,” Hamilton said, referring to leagues at the Madison Curling Club.
“And so like, I’ve got a lot of sweeps under my belt by this time of the year normally, and this year I am practicing by myself and I’m not getting up and sweeping my own rocks,” Hamilton said. “I’m trying to make sure that I’ve got some wind and I got some strength in the back and the arms still for sweeping. So that’s kind of been my focus — keep the legs sharp and strong so I don’t like get Jello-y while I’m playing. But I haven’t gotten that practice. so I’m not really 100 percent sure where I’m stacking up to where I need to be. I would hate to get there and be through one game and be like, ‘I’m gassed. I can’t sweep anymore.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen, but you know, it’s just been such a weird year.”
Although he is competing again in Calgary, Hamilton is looking forward to the chance to compete again in the Olympics in China in 2022. Some U.S. lawmakers are talking about a potential Olympic boycott because of human rights abuses in China.
Hamilton said he hasn’t heard much about the boycott directly.
“I feel like they keep us in the loop, but at the same time, that’s the kind of stuff that they don’t want their athletes thinking about because their athletes can’t really do anything about it,” Hamilton said. “You know what I mean? [We should] focus on being ready to play and if we don’t play, we don’t play.
“Obviously it would be really crummy if we boycotted the Olympics because I think this . . . realistically, this could be my last go-round . . . I’m 32 years old and not really sure I want to move into a back end position,” said Hamiilton, who curls as the second on the U.S. mens team.
“And if I did, I don’t know if I’m necessarily still going to be the top of the U.S. pool anymore. And I don’t know if my entire team’s going to come back. I’m just kind of thinking to myself, realistically, this might be my last Olympics, so it would be bad. But at the same time, what they’re doing over there is pretty terrible too, so boycotting, it brings some attention to it and it stops — this is for the greater good.”
Hamilton is planning to sell his hair for charity; learn more on his Twiiter feed @MattJamilton