CRAIG HILL; The News Tribune

Ever since Nicole Joraanstad graduated from Kentridge High in 1999 and moved to Madison, Wis., she hasn’t had many reasons to return to the Northwest.

She picked the University of Wisconsin to study business, her parents – Gary and Debra – moved to Mississippi then Ohio, and Joraanstad spends her spare time curling.

But in February she earned a return trip to the area when her team won the curling national championship for the fourth year in a row.

This time the national championship came with a spot in next year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C., making her – and her team – the first athletes from the United States to qualify for the games.

Most of the American athletes won’t officially be named until January. The games are Feb. 12-28.

“It’s nice to qualify so early,” said Joraanstad, a 29-year-old corporate recruiter for TDS Telecom. “It gives us a chance to plan out everything without being rushed.”

Joraanstad started curling because of her dad, Gary, who played out of Seattle’s Granite Curling Club. He played on some good teams that contended for national championships in the 1980s – before curling was an Olympic event.

When Joraanstad turned 15 she started curling, and in 1996 her team advanced to junior nationals and finished eighth.

“I was pretty much hooked after that,” Joraanstad said.

She quit the school softball, basketball and track teams to focus on curling, and it paid off.

Her teams returned to junior nationals the next five years, winning the title in 2000 and 2001 after she moved to Madison.

“Granite is a great club but I needed to go some place where there were more clubs and more curlers,” Joraanstad said.

Curling became an Olympic sport at the 1998 games in Nagano. Still a junior at Kentridge at the time, Joraanstad envisioned a day when she would be competing for a gold medal.

By the 2002 Olympics she was already in contention to qualify. Her team finished fourth in qualifying. Only one team advances to the games.

It was qualifying for the 2006 games that proved to be one of the key moments in her career.

Her team, along with Debbie McCormick’s Wisconsin team, were the favorites, but both teams were upset.

The next summer, McCormick and Joraanstad decided to combine forces to form a team that wouldn’t be upset the next time around. Joraanstad joined McCormick’s team, which also includes Tracy Sachtjen of Wisconsin and Allison Pottinger and Natalie Nicholson of Minnesota.

The team has dominated women’s curling in the United States ever since.

When this year’s national championships came around, Joraanstad’s new team was ready. There would be no upsets.

As the team’s second – meaning she throws the third and fourth stones and sweeps for everybody else – Joraanstad helped her team go undefeated.

Joraanstad and her teammates usually take the summer off, but not this year.

Three weekends a month Joraanstad makes the 21/2-hour drive from Madison to Green Bay to practice with her team. The team will also take a training trip to Switzerland.

“This is a new model for us, but I think it will work well,” Joraanstad said. “We are keeping our skills honed so we are starting off stronger next season.”

Perhaps that will translate into a spot on the medals podium when she returns to the area, where she says she still has lots of friends and extended family.

The team will have to be at the top of its game in Vancouver. As dominant as it has been in the United States, it has yet to win a world championship.

The team finished ninth in March at the World Championships in Korea. Its best finish came in 2006 in Alberta (second), but it was fourth in 2007 and seventh in ’08.

The U.S. has never won an Olympic medal in women’s curling.

Joraanstad expects that to change in Vancouver: “We expect to win gold.”

Deneen makes team

Cle Elum moguls mogul Patrick Deneen made the U.S. freestyle team earlier this month. He’s the defending world champion in the moguls and one of the leading candidates from Washington to win a medal at February’s Winter Olympics.

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