U.S. curling team a team you can identify with

Updated: February 19, 2006, 8:15 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PIAROLA, Italy -- Some Olympians earn millions of dollars a year and have endorsement deals with Nike, Coke and Visa.

Pete Fenson owns a pizza restaurant in Bemidji, Minnesota.

This is one of the reasons I like curling. You can identify with the athletes.

Don't get me wrong. I like skiing and speedskating and figure skating and all the sports where the athletes throw themselves down mountains or race at unbelievable speeds and leap in ways on ice that make my neck sore and knees ache. But curling is a sport that seems just a little more accessible.

After all, there aren't many Olympic sports where you can join the athletes for beer and pizza in a tent after the event. But curling is one of them.

True, you could probably join Bode Miller in a Sestriere nightclub if you're one of the beautiful people or have a sufficient Q rating, but getting behind the velvet rope is a little easier at the pizza and beer tent. It not only is a curling tradition to share a drink with opponents after the game, but most clubs specifically spell out "Have fun" as part of their official rules (some of them even list it twice). And after the U.S. men knocked off Great Britain 9-8 to qualify for at least a playoff berth, the tent was filled with star-spangled family and friends eating, drinking and congratulating their favorite team.

"The camaraderie is huge," Fenson said. "People don't realize how social this game is. We're all in here after the game, congratulating the other teams for winning, for losing and for just competing. We have a good time."

Which is not to say curlers don't take their sport very seriously. Fenson, in fact, takes it so seriously that he dropped his brother, Eric, from the team two years ago and replaced him with a younger curler. The move caused such a family rift that Eric told a Minneapolis paper that he hasn't spoken to his brother in a year and a half. Fenson declined to talk about it Sunday.

But what the heck, how can you get a more real family situation than one involving sibling rivalry, beer and pizza? Well, how about a connection to "Field of Dreams?" Curler John Schuster is from Chisholm, the little northern Minnesota city that was the home town of the real Moonlight Graham.

"Graham lived about four blocks from where I grew up," said Schuster's father, Tom. "He used to give physicals to the grade school students."

The Polos re-financed their mortgage to pay for the trip here, budgeting about $17,000. Mae Polo said they haven't spent all of it yet, but they haven't bought their souvenirs, either. But that's curling. It's a family sport like few others. The Fenson brothers might have broken up, but the Johnson sisters, Cassie and Jamie, are both here competing for the U.S. women's team.

The team of Fenson, Schuster, Shawn Rojeski and Joe Polo is a little more presentable than the 1998 and 2002 squad that had a reputation for fighting and whose captain once served 40 days in jail. This team also has a good chance to finish better. Sunday's victory increased the U.S. record to 6-2 with one game left in the round robin. The U.S. team assured itself a spot in the medal round with Sunday's victory over Great Britain. The top four teams advance to the medal round.

The women's team didn't fare so well, losing 9-8 to Switzerland and eliminating them from medal contention with a 2-6 record in the round robin.

Fenson's pizza back in Minnesota gets high marks from his teammates -- "If you're on the team, you get free pizza," Polo said -- but the team has been getting by just fine here in the home of pizza. Fenson said he's tried a number of excellent pies since he's been here, but he was non-committal on which is better -- thin or thick, Italian or Chicago-style. He's a perfectionist when it comes to his business, but he isn't particularly interested in talking about pizza right now.

He has a more important round souvenir he wants to bring home.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com