By Greg Groggel – NBC Olympics
Posted Monday, August 3, 2009 11:08 AM ET

The curling draw for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games was announced on July 27. The two U.S. rinks will play the tournament’s strongest teams in the later stages of the competition. The men’s team, skipped by 2006 bronze medalist John Shuster, will open the tournament against middle-tier teams. Among their early opponents, Norway is most likely to contend for a medal. Team Shuster will need to win at least one of the first three to set themselves up to advance. The U.S. men’s rink finds a favorable schedule in the middle of the tournament before facing the two best teams (Great Britain and Canada) near the end. Shuster should benefit from the draw, but starting the tournament with a win against a vulnerable veteran German rink will be key. After the 10 teams have played each other, those with the four best records advance to the semifinals.

As for the women, Debbie McCormick’s team will have a stretch at the end where they’ll play the three toughest teams in a row (Canada, Sweden, China). It’s a particularly difficult schedule, and one the team will need to put out of their minds if they’re to maintain focus and beat the less-skilled opponents of the opening matches.

Curling, a sport often relegated to niche status, will receive its full weight of attention in Vancouver. With the exception of hockey, no pair of gold medals will mean more to the 2010 host. At the 1988 Calgary Games, curling returned to the Olympic program as a demonstration sport. Curling-crazed Canadians snatched up the 21,000 tickets for the six days of competition almost as soon as they were available, selling out faster than any sport except figure skating and speed skating. Since Nagano, when curling was added to the Olympic program, Canada is the only country to win a medal in both men’s and women’s competition at every Winter Games. The two Canadian representatives, decided at Olympic Trials next December, will contend for gold.

The top four teams will advance to play in the semifinals on February 25 with the women’s bronze and gold medal games on February 26 and the men’s bronze and gold medal games on February 27.

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