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Olympic qualification narrowly missed

It was close but no cigar for Anton Hood and Courtney Smith at the World Mixed Doubles Curling Championships in Aberdeen, Scotland, as they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Yet the 21-year-olds, two of Naseby’s finest, have years ahead of them on the ice.

To get to the Olympics is not a given, due to the competitive nature of mixed doubles in New Zealand, but they may have another shot in December.

The pair have done Naseby — population 100 — proud with their placing of 12th overall, and within hours completing the mandatory 14-day stint in managed isolation required upon arriving back in New Zealand, they return to the ice at the Maniototo Curling International rink to compete in the New Zealand Open Men’s and Women’s Championships today.

Hood is Auckland-born but Naseby-raised and after completing year 13 at Maniototo Area School, finished his building apprenticeship for Breen Construction in Alexandra before work across the Tasman beckoned.

The qualified carpenter-builder works for architectural residential building company, Artstruct in Brisbane.

Smith, also a Maniototo Area School alumnus, is a third-year nursing student and will graduate from Otago polytechnic in December.

Short-term, she is completing the paperwork to be a provisional Covid vaccinator in Dunedin.

Curling was something Hood started around ages 12 to 13 with mates from school under coach, and curling stalwart, Peter Becker.

Smith’s path in the sport is similar, starting at 13 and competing in secondary school competitions.

For both Smith and Hood living in Naseby meant curling  was inevitable.

The seeds were quickly sown.

‘‘I got into it pretty quickly and played my first secondary school comp later that year,’’ Hood said. In 2016 he shifted focus, stopping club rugby to focus on curling in the winter season.

There is also a sychronicity in Smith’s trajectory.

‘‘I really got the bug when I realised there was an opportunity to be selected for the 2016 Youth Olympic Games and I really set my sights on it.’’

It was a goal she achieved, going to Lillehammer, Norway, to an atmosphere she described as ‘‘out of this world’’ and a motivating factor for continuing the sport.

Hood also played in his first international event in 2016 at the Pacific Asia Curling Championship, as the alternate for Team Peter de Boer, ‘‘getting to play . . .with my New Zealand curling idols, Peter de Boer as skip, Sean Becker, Scott Becker, Warren Dobson and my long-time coach Peter Becker’’.

Sedate . . . Courtney Smith’s workout in managed isolation is slightly less acrobatic. PHOTO: COURTNEY SMITH

Smith said being skipper of the New Zealand Womens’ Under 21 team at the World Junior B Curling Championship in 2020 cemented curling as her sport. Hood’s international career was also taking off. Winning the World Junior B in 2019 was a standout.

‘‘Matthew Neilson as skip and second, Ben Smith, Hunter Walker with myself throwing fourth stones and coach Peter Becker.

‘‘It was awesome to win a medal for our longtime team coach and ‘godfather’ of NZ curlingPeter Becker.’’

Aberdeen was not on his ‘‘calendar’’, Hood said. For Smith the opportunity was too good to pass up and as soon as she knew it was a possibility, she started ramping up her ice training, juggling study in Dunedin with her goal in what would be her first tournament out of juniors.

Hood’s journey to Aberdeen was more complex.

‘‘I had moved to Australia for an awesome work opportunity and beach life in Brisbane, after chasing winters for six years.

‘‘With Covid-19 cancelling a lot of the international tournaments and my New Zealand ranking in mixed doubles, I was not on the radar of the selectors after the 2020 season.’’

Yet, he was physically and mentally fit for the tournament.

‘‘Although I had not as much training time the few months leading up to Aberdeen, the 10 days I had leading up to the tournament with Courtney and national coach Peter de Boer put me right back into the groove of where I was before I headed away for work.’’

They were not the first choice to represent New Zealand. ‘‘ Because of work, study and family commitments, none of the top the New Zealand mixed doubles pairings were able to go,’’ Hood said. Added to this was funding. ‘‘Because New Zealand curling isn’t currently funded, it can be hard to afford to take time off work.

‘‘It was all about getting New Zealand Curling the results that we needed to keep New Zealand in the top 16 in the world and getting New Zealand a step closer to the Beijing Winter Olympics.’’

It was Smith who sealed the deal. ‘‘Courtney approached me with the idea when the opportunity came about.

She ranked ahead of me in the 2020 mixed doubles nationals, so I felt I needed to help her opportunity on the world stage and for New Zealand, too.’’ Smith put it simply.

‘‘We had a job to do and that was our focus.’’ Competing in a Covid world compounded issues, they both said.

‘‘We had terms and conditions to abide by from New Zealand Curling for them to deem it safe for us before and while we were away,’’ Hood said.

Flights to Aberdeen took roughly 48 hours and upon arrival the Scottish Government gave the participants special dispensation when it came to isolated quarantine, because the world curling bubble had no contact with the Scottish population.

‘‘[We] arrived in Aberdeen and locked down in the hotel room until we returned two negative Covid tests over the three days prior to the practise sessions.’’

Masks were a must unless in their rooms, and the hotel and rink were only for people participating in the event.

This meant daily health checks and Covid tests roughly every second day.

The trip home was a 60-plus hour journey and in Auckland they were taken straight to MIQ.

Beating boredom . . .
Anton Hood performs one of his trademark handstands in managed isolation and quarantine in Auckland. PHOTO: ANTON HOOD

As active people, they both described life in MIQ as a challenge, but it was a pay-off for competing.

To appraise their performance, Hood said he believed they performed well individually and as a team.

‘‘Statistically, as a team, we competed with the best teams in the world and the results show.

‘‘The win we needed was against the United States to keep us in contention for the top three in our pool spot, just with how the standings are calculated at WCF [World Curling Federation] events.

‘‘New Zealand still has a chance for Beijing at the Olympic Qualification Event in December.’’

Unlike other teams in Aberdeen, Hood and Smith did not have an entourage.

‘‘It was difficult to not have a coach with us at times but with how the world is at the moment it’s understandable that we couldn’t take one with us,’’ Hood said.

‘‘National coach Peter de Boer was on the phone to us after every game, going over strategy, the result, the next game, so we didn’t miss out on that side of it.’’

That bridged the distance, Smith said.

Hood said New Zealand always seemed to play underdog in most sports and curling was no exception.

Of 20 teams at the event, it was the only country not funded through high performance programmes.