Rich Ruohonen will be courting fame when he heads to Omaha for a special kind of trial — the U.S. Olympic trial for men’s curling — this November.
As a trial lawyer at Minneapolis-based TSR Injury Law (he’s the “R” in the firm’s name), Ruohonen is accustomed to waiting on other people — juries, for example — to make up their minds about matters of high and immediate import to him. So he didn’t lose patience this past spring waiting on the U.S. Olympic Committee to announce the men’s curling teams selected to play in the U.S. Men’s Curling Trials in Omaha this fall. Nor did he lose hope when the United States Curling Olympic Committee (USCCC) did not choose his team with one of its discretionary picks.
The U.S. secured a berth in the men’s curling competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics when Team Shuster, captained by two-time Olympian John Shuster — and now playing under the Team USA banner — carved out a fourth-place finish at the Ford World Men’s Curling Championship 2017 in Edmonton, Alberta.
Ruohonen’s Team Birr narrowly missed beating the Duluth-based Shuster team at the U.S. Nationals in February, losing out on the last shot of the last game. “We lost by four inches!” he said.
The loss notwithstanding, Ruohonen felt that the team had proven its Olympic-caliber mettle over the course of the 2016-17 season. “We were one of top five teams in the U.S. all season and played great at Nationals, but unfortunately lost a battle in the championship game,” said Ruohonen.
Ruohonen stepped up his own play at the Nationals, racking up the best shot percentage among all curlers in the tournament — and proving that, at age 45, he could still play with the best. “I’ve never played better than I did in the Nationals this year,” he said. His shooting percentage ranked number one among the curlers in tournament play.
Losing out to the Shuster squad was no disgrace, either. Team Shuster had represented the U.S. in the previous two Winter Olympics, and was on its way to clinching a guaranteed berth for the U.S. in the 2018 Winter Olympics with an impressive fourth-place finish in the Worlds.
So Ruohonen and Team Birr had reason to hope for an invitation to the Olympic trials. Finally, in late May, the United States Curling Olympic Committee’s final selection announcement came out. Team Birr missed the cut. The committee decided to exercise just one of its discretionary options, naming three other teams besides Team Shuster as the discretionary picks for the Olympic Trials.
Fortunately for Ruohonen, Team McCormick still had an open player slot on its own squad. Heath McCormick, skip of the team, invited Ruohonen aboard as the team’s fifth man. Ruohonen, elated, signed on with Team McCormick immediately.
The way it works out, Ruohonen will play a swing role for the team. “The fifth man plays if someone gets injured or turns up sick, or to give someone a break,” he says. “This gives the team a little extra experience to fall back on for the Olympic trials, too,” he says. When not playing, he will also act as coach for the team and use his vast experience to help the team succeed.
Team McCormick may see his veteran experience as his greatest asset going into the trials, he says. “Some of the guys, they’re a little young, so I give them a little extra experience to fall back on for the trials,” he says.
He knows Team McCormick and its players well, having competed both with and against them over the years. He and fellow McCormick curler Chris Plys played together for four years, and just narrowly missed the Olympics four years ago.
”I know Heater (Heath McCormick) and Chris really well,” says Ruohonen, adding that he looks forward to helping the team however he can in the upcoming trials.
Ruohonen, in fact, knows just about everybody playing championship-level men’s curling in the U.S., and many around the world too.
He started curling in 1981, at age 12 or 13, at the St. Paul Curling Club at 470 Selby Ave. — then the only indoor curling facility in the Twin Cities. Ruohonen made his mark early on, demonstrating a talent for the game that saw him nearly go to the U.S. Junior Nationals once.
For Ruohonen, the opportunity to compete for a fourth time as a player in the U.S. Olympic trials was reason enough to alter his easy-living plans for the summer. Back on the schedule came the predawn workouts, five days a week, complemented by miles-long runs and bicycle rides on weekend days. By mid-summer, he was back in mid-season form, ready for whatever lies ahead on the road to Omaha.
The new curling season starts around Labor Day, and Team McCormick will likely play in six weekend tournaments between Sept. 1 and Halloween. “We hope to go to Toronto a couple of times, and maybe Switzerland,” he said. Team McCormick has also been picked for “Curling Night in America,” which will take place in August in Omaha. NBC-TV will record the event, and the NBC network of local television stations will air the coverage at their discretion throughout September and October leading up to the Olympic Trials.
For pure spectacle, the Canadian Grand Slam tournaments are the best. Curling may be second only to hockey as a major winter spectator sport, he says. Crowds of 5,000 to 15,000 pack the big arenas in places like Toronto and Quebec. Play is by invitation-only, and only the best teams in the world, based on an international points system, get the invite.
The schedule includes a stopover in St. Paul, the weekend of Oct. 6-8, for the St. Paul Cash Spiel — an official World Curling Tour event. Some of the best men’s and women’s teams from around the world, including Team McCormick and the other men’s trials teams, will descend on the St. Paul Curling Club for the competition.
Ruohonen should be in his comfort zone at the St. Paul Curling Club, since it’s one of the two arenas that he calls home ice.
The Omaha trials take place Nov. 10-16, in the 5,000-seat Baxter Arena. Most importantly for the curling world, NBC plans to air 58 hours of television coverage, live and taped, of tournament play. NBC’s end-to-end coverage of the trials shows how far curling has come as a popular sport in the U.S. recently. “Twenty years ago, there wasn’t any television coverage of curling,” Ruohonen says.
Curling was an official Olympic sport in 1924 and ’28, but then it fell off the Olympic calendar. Not until 1998 did curling return to the Olympics, so it would be untrue to say that Ruohonen grew up dreaming of curling for Olympic gold. But he did entertain dreams of playing at the highest level of international competition – dreams that have certainly come true for him many times over.
He’s missed just one full season of curling since 1981, taking a year off while studying law at Hamline Law School, to recover from a serious knee injury. He blew out the patella tendon in his left leg – the tendon holds the kneecap in place, basically – and had to sit out a year for rehabilitation.
“Fortunately, it was my trailing leg,” he says of the rebuilt knee.
Age is not quite the hurdle for curlers as it is in some other sports, such as hockey, gymnastics and skiing. Yet at his age, Ruohonen realizes that he may not get another chance to grab for the Olympic ring. He’ll be 50 years old in 2022, after all. Then again, he wouldn’t be the first 50+ curler to compete in the Olympics. Carl August Kronlund, aged 58, won a silver medal for curling in the 1924 Winter Olympics and Russ Howard from Canada won a gold medal at age 50 in the 2006 Winter Olympics.
The future can wait, save for what’s just ahead on that road to Omaha. For now, he’s just looking to help Team McCormick win the U.S. trials in November.