Andrew Cowell (right) and Gray Simms (left) curl as a part of a combined Salmon Arm / Vernon team in the Optimist U18 Championships at the Salmon Arm Curling Centre March 13-18. The pair of young up-and-comers are drawn to the game by its focus on strategy and sportsmanship. (Jodi Brak/Salmon Arm Observer)

Optimist U18 Championships underway at Salmon Arm Curling Centre

Youth curlers compete for provincial title and a spot at nationals

Some of the most talented young curlers from across the province are squaring off to aim for the button March 13-18 at the Salmon Arm Curling Centre as part of the Optimist U18 Provincial Curling Championships.

This year marks the second annual Optimist U18 Championship, previously held in Nanaimo in 2017.

It is a chance for young curlers to face off in an organized competition against others at their own skill level, with the U18 being a newer division that further separates the juniors (21 and under) from the U18 crowd. Competitors are curling for a chance to take home a provincial trophy and attend the upcoming national championships in New Brunswick.

As part of Team Colwell, a combined team composed of players from Vernon and Salmon Arm, 17-year-olds Andrew Cowell and Gray Simms are excited to put their skills to the test against other top teams from across the province. They have been curling for more than five years and will be joined by skip Erik Colwell, Ben Morin and Adam Raber of Vernon, as well as coach Dale Hofer.

As these young curlers explain, the heavy focus on strategy and thinking one rock ahead of their opponent is what drew them to the game in the first place.

Andrew Cowell, who throws lead on the combined team, says “I think my favourite part of the game is all the strategy, which you don’t get quite as much of as a lead as opposed to a skip, but there is still team discussions involved. I don’t think everyone does understand how much strategy is involved, some people think it’s just all about getting it close to the button.”

“I think really that’s at the heart of curling, that strategy, it’s a very mental game,” adds Gray Simms, who serves as the fifth alternate member of the combined team.

Aside from the mental engagement they get from a good bonspiel, Cowell and Simms hold up the grassroots feel and social appeal of curling as something that has kept them interested in the game.

“Modern sports now are kind of all about money and are very commercialized, curling hasn’t quite had that happen to it and I think that really sets it apart from other sports,” Cowell says.

“It is still the kind of sport where there are clubs in almost every city and town in Canada,” Simms says. “It’s one of those sports that really people play for their whole lives and they play everywhere.”

The pair of Salmon Arm curlers have some experience playing under pressure as they both attended the 2017 B.C. Winter Games as part of the silver-medal team. Coming into the Optimist U18 Championships they have been training hard, throwing rocks as often as possible on their own and as a team.

“I think we’re well prepared, we have had lots of practice going into it,” Cowell says. “We’re lucky to be playing at home, we have sort of a home ice advantage here, we know the ice a little bit.”

Cowell believes their team excels at ensuring everyone understands where the next rock should land.

“I think we do a really good job with communication, we work well together and that enables us to be better prepared to make shots and we hope to use that to our advantage,” he says.

Kate Horne, who is helping organize the event with the Salmon Arm Curling Club, feels inspired by the amount of young people still interested in the sport.

“It’s really gratifying to see that there is a lot of young people still so interested in the game,” she says. “What’s really neat is to see that those kids have stuck to the game, they’re inspiring other young kids to get into it, and they’re helping to lead a healthy lifestyle.”

Most importantly, Horne is proud to see these young curlers embody one of the key elements of the game – sportsmanship.

In fact, one of the new additions to the U18 Championships is a sportsmanship trophy. Competitors will each submit two nominations for the most sportsmanlike player, with the winner determined by number of nominations.

“I love the fact that curling starts with a handshake and ends with a handshake… most teams are just excellent ambassadors for their community and it’s really inspiring.”

“It’s a very social sport off the ice,” Simms adds. “On the ice it’s of course very competitive, but off the ice it is very sportsmanlike, there’s always lots of smiles.”

The Optimist U18 Championships take place at the Salmon Arm Curling Centre March 13-18. The opening ceremonies kicked off the event on March 13, led by a parade of Salmon Arm’s junior curlers, firefighters and members of the Shuswap Pipes and Drums.

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