MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Canada's men's curling team plays Norway tomorrow for the gold. The fact that the Canadians are undefeated should come as no surprise. They're from a country that's crazy about the sport of sliding stones on a sheet of ice. More importantly, they have, by many accounts, the best curler ever. In fact, an opponent recently called the leader of the Canadian team, Kevin Martin, the Michael Jordan of curling.
From Vancouver, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN: That's right, the Michael Jordan of curling. I've spent these Winter Olympics trying to find an entree into the fascinating and oft-maligned sport. I wanted to understand it because making fun of it? Well, that story's old and tired.
After reading the Michael Jordan comparison in a local newspaper, that was my in because I know Michael Jordan. We all do: the dunks, the championships, the awe-inspiring shots with the tongue hanging out. Armed with those visions, I went to the athletes' village and met up with the man responsible for the curling comparison.
Mr. JOHN SHUSTER (Skip, United States Olympic Curling Team): My name is John Shuster. I'm the skip of the United States 2010 men's Olympic team.
GOLDMAN: Okay, first, explainer: The skip essentially is the leader of the four-man curling team or rink. The skip, Shuster says, is the master strategist, the guy who best sees how the stones line up after they're slid, who sees opportunities on where to slide the stones to the right spot so they can earn points. And the skip is always thinking ahead like a good pool player. No one does it better, Shuster says, than the 43-year-old Canadian skip, Kevin Martin.
Mr. SHUSTER: It really comes down to strategy and execution, and those are the two elements of our sport that make you and a team dominant. And him and his teams have been at the top in strategy and execution for a long time, and that's somewhere that we're all striving to be.
GOLDMAN: Still a little vague. Strategy and execution don't exactly conjure up images of Jordan-esque feats of impossibility. I pressed Shuster for examples. What exactly sets Kevin Martin they call him K-Mart apart? Shuster recounted a moment from the USA's loss to Canada during these Olympics, and bear with him on the curling details here.
Mr. SHUSTER: He threw a rock in the sixth end. We have a chance to get a bunch of points and it was a two-to-one game play in the sixth end. And he threw a rock to the backside four-foot, and they steal one...
GOLDMAN: Here's the payoff.
Mr. SHUSTER: And I come down to him and I said, you know, you just played a shot that, you know, many people in our world are afraid to play. And there was only one spot you could put that rock, and you guys had the guts to do it and you had the ability to put it there.
GOLDMAN: That's what I'm talkin' about: guts and delivering the shot - MJ on ice.
(Soundbite of applause)
GOLDMAN: Yesterday, I went to Canada's semifinal game against Sweden and watched Martin's shot in the fifth end an end is like an inning in baseball -earn Canada a pivotal two points.
(Soundbite of applause)
GOLDMAN: His teammates called the shot a game changer. Afterwards, a reporter mentioned that the game was scary at the start with the Swedes in top form. Martin was quick to give his opponents credit.
Mr. KEVIN MARTIN (Canadian Olympic Curling Team): It was. They played so well.
GOLDMAN: As he stood in front of me, I tried to think Jordan, but I couldn't stop seeing Jerry Lundegaard, that gee-whiz car salesman character in the movie "Fargo." But I had to move beyond appearances, and by the way, Martin, like MJ, is bald. Well, okay, he's got fringe on the sides but close.
I tried to listen to Martin carefully. He talked about playing in the gold-medal game and a chance to win it all after almost doing it in 2002, when he won a silver at the Salt Lake City Olympics. And, sure enough, I heard a Jordan-esque fire-in-the-belly competitiveness Canadian-style.
Mr. MARTIN: I roll with punches pretty good. So it definitely won't be the end of the world if we don't win, but I seriously want to get up that podium one more step.
GOLDMAN: An entire nation will be rooting for him to take that step. If he does, I can already hear the new ad campaign: I wanna be like Kevin. Okay, it needs work, but you get the point.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Vancouver.
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