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Curling’s ice-master overcoming problems in Sochi

February 16, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Hans Wuthrich strolls around with one hand in his pocket, gazing one last time at the four pristine sheets of ice he has prepared for an afternoon session at the Ice Cube Curling Center.

He turns and retreats into his storeroom located just to the side of the playing surface, underneath the stands.

His work is done — for a couple of hours, anyway.

Wuthrich — widely regarded as the best ice technician around — is an unwitting star of the curling tournament at the Sochi Olympics. It’s his and his two assistants’ painstaking work on the ice that provides optimum conditions for the world’s best curlers to do their thing in front of 3,000 spectators in the center and millions of others watching around the globe.

He makes everything look so simple.

But he says it’s been anything but simple these past few weeks in Russia.

“It’s very challenging,” Wuthrich said in an interview just off the ice. “It’s not Canada. I’m pretty familiar what happens there, how fast you can get something. But it’s been a real challenge here.”

Wuthrich has been preparing surfaces for curling tournaments since the late 1970s, when he moved to Canada from his native Switzerland and immediately was drawn to his local curling club in Gimli, Manitoba. Within a few years, he had taken over from the retired ice-maker at the club and soon was working at national and global tournaments.

Curling is Canada’s No. 2 winter sport behind hockey, so equipment and conditions are of a high standard there and Wuthrich encounters few problems. It’s been different in Sochi.

“A lot of it is down to the fact that it just wasn’t finished on time, stuff wasn’t tested properly,” Wuthrich said.

“For instance, one morning (this week), we had no computers from 6 a.m. to 1:10 p.m. We couldn’t turn on an air handler, a light, change any temperatures, nothing. Every day there’s something.”

Wuthrich shakes his head in frustration. But, of course, he has surmounted these problems.

Ever the perfectionist, you can set your watch to the time he comes out onto the ice before, between and after sessions — when all the spectators have left — and “pebbles” his beloved ice in complete serenity.

With a tank of warm water on his back, Wuthrich shuffles up and down each of the four sheets, spraying water from the hose in his right hand. His technique is hypnotic — it’s been christened by the curling fraternity the “Gimli Shuffle.”

The droplets of water freeze into tiny bumps, creating a surface that reduces friction on the granite stones as they travel down the ice.

“He would be out there 24 hours a day if he had to,” World Curling President Kate Caithness said. “Nothing is too much for him ... That’s why we have him here. He can face these challenges and overcome them.”

Wuthrich’s days are long. He leaves his hotel at 6 a.m. and is usually in the Ice Cube past 11 p.m. There is little downtime through the day — during games, he watches from a seat high up at one end, at a table next to where team coaches and alternates sit. In front of him are two monitors that keep him informed about conditions on the ice.

In the summer, when his time isn’t taken up so much by pebbling or keeping ice rinks at the perfect temperature, he runs his own landscaping company and nursery in Gimli. In the winter, he also works in snow removal.

There reportedly have been one or two problems during play this week. Britain’s women’s skip, Eve Muirhead, complained Saturday about some debris falling onto the ice from an overhead camera. The unusually warm temperatures in Sochi this month have also been a concern for Wuthrich.

Considering what he’s been faced with, though, Wuthrich and his team have delivered another smooth tournament.

“He’s a great ice maker,” Canada skip Brad Jacobs said. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that’s better than him.”

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