After a tight Olympic Trials match that came down to the wire with Matt Hamilton’s Team Shuster prevailing to clinch a berth in the Beijing Winter Olympics, the veteran curler rushed over to the side to greet his sister in a warm embrace. A cameraperson captured the wholesome moment.
What wasn’t picked up, which is unusual since 99% of the time this sport is mic’d up, is what Matt whispered to his kid sister:
“Anything you do … I can do better,” he grinned in a singsong voice.
Ah, yes. Now we’re getting to the good stuff.
If you haven’t already been romanced by the sport of curling — with stones that originated from one island off of Scotland, in a game that began centuries ago with cold soldiers looking to pass the time, with the U.S. headquarters right up in Stevens Point until two years ago — you need to meet the Hamiltons from McFarland, Wisconsin.
Matt, 32, is a 2018 Olympic gold medalist who used to work at the Tornado Club Steak House in Madison and who literally wears his heart on his sleeve with several tattoos depicting scenes of Madison life.
Becca, 31, is a 2018 Olympian and U.S. National champion, who was once so shy she didn't want to practice the sport in front of any audience.
Unfortunately, as of Tuesday afternoon, the US Curling Nationals that were supposed to be ongoing right now in Cedar Rapids, Iowa were cancelled due to COVID-19 as well as the Slam in Camrose set for mid-January.
Still, the Hamiltons and their curling teams are planning to head to the Beijing Winter Olympics, just one month away. And after intense testing and major safety protocol hoops to jump through, we will be treated to curling from the other side of the world from this sibling duo.
Matt has the distinction of getting a congratulatory phone calls from Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl and Mr. T. Becca has always pushed Matt, keeping the sibling rivalry alive and well a decade and a half past childhood.
Becca’s team, Tabitha Peterson’s team, clinched the berth last November.
“We've been in the Olympics, four of us of the five," Becca said. "We've done this before. It's going to be building off of what we learned from 2018 and moving forward to 2022.”
Matt’s team, Shuster, has eliminated bad games and is playing very well. Matt’s top priority is to be a leader.
“Bringing that positive energy and really trying to stay ‘up’ and almost be like a cheerleader, slash, clown for the guys,” he said.
That kind of leadership and positivity will be essential. The Games are expected to go on despite the latest surge from the omicron variant of COVID-19; China claims a 90% vaccination rate (according to the Beijing News Hour) and has been reporting very strict lockdowns of its residents in recent weeks.
So it appears that while coronavirus delayed the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo by a year, the Beijing Games are set to compete on schedule. (For now).
It provides the opportunity of a lifetime for the Hamiltons, one that began years ago in their hometown of McFarland, a distant suburb of Madison.
How it started: A reluctant Becca
Matt already was throwing rocks by the age of 16, and Becca, 17 months his junior, was tagging along; her viewpoint was that she had to go. “I did not want anything to do with it,” she said.
Matt’s viewpoint was that his sister was curious.
“She was pretty intrigued. But she never wanted to play in front of other people. That was the funny part,” he said. “Like she literally asked, 'Is anyone else gonna be there?'”
Of course, Matt wasn’t one of those protective older brothers who let her win, or show her a little mercy.
“No, I wouldn't let Becca win in rock, paper, scissors,” he said. “We are way too competitive.”
When another Madison Curling Club member noticed the 15-year-old Becca in the shadows, he and Matt finally lured her to the sheet.
“Yeah, we dragged her out," Matt said.
“It was good because she knew if she won, she did it legit. I wouldn't even think she would want me to pooch a shot to give her a better chance at winning. That kind of competitive mentality runs in the family a little bit.”
Said Becca: “So kicking and screaming, I went out on the ice — and never looked back.”
Steel sharpens steel — that’s how Matt feels about Becca. They spent every night at the club, with club members even bringing them dinner sometimes. They even play together in mixed doubles.
But when Becca hits Mateo or Teo in her phone to call her brother (an old nickname from Spanish class), or when Matt calls his sister Rebecca Lynn (or Becky to annoy her), all the competition dissolves, and they can just commiserate, vent or share, unguarded or censored.
"With mixed doubles and curling together, it's more of a collaborative effort,” Becca said. “We go out there and I'm like, Matt, you're dumping your inturn or you're throwing this bad, and it's moreso working and it's constructive criticism. It definitely started as competitive, now it's definitely more collaborative.”
On the ice, there is a Hamilton look and style of play, for sure. Both Becca and Matt are quick with their sharpness and sweeping, and with judging line. They also play the second position.
"So we play takeouts all the time," Becca said. "So everyone's always saying how much weight we can throw — which means that's the fast rock travels.”
Friendship behind the competition
People tell the Hamiltons all the time: “I took up curling because of you.”
With almost 90 curling clubs throughout the state, Wisconsin is challenging Minnesota as the most popular state for the sport.
“Then people are like, 'hey, I really like you — but I like your sister better,'” Matt said. “I'm like, 'wow, that's that makes three of you because my parents' … Becca is always winning the ‘who's the favorite child department’ so that's why I have to be competitive.”
But when the two just need to talk, about their jobs or their sports, it’s a meet up at the McFarland dog park, with Matt’s golden retriever Moose and golden doodle Grizzly, and Becca’s silver lab Oly (named after the last Olympics) and Lily, who's a pug — and the boss of all of them.
“We'll walk around and talk about tournaments or whatever's going on,” Becca said. “We are each other's biggest cheerleaders. And also biggest coaches. I learned a lot from Matt and playing with him, just learning angles and strategy and things that male curlers have a different view of.”
Both are big sports fans, too: Packers season-ticket holders, die-hard Badgers fans. When Matt met his future wife, he opened with this gem: Are you a Packers fan?
“That wasn't really much as a pickup line as much as like, 'if you're not, I don't think we could date,'” Matt said. “We already had like a little bit of chemistry going and I was like, oh wait, hold on, before we go any farther: Are you a Packer fan?
“And then I said, 'how do you feel about Brett Favre?' Because it was right after Brett Favre went to the Jets and came to Minnesota. She gave me a pretty good answer. She goes, 'I respect what he did for the Packers but not super happy with him right now.'
“It's like alright, will you marry me?”
While Becca paused her job working with autistic children for now to concentrate on the Games, Matt has a weekly radio show on ESPN in Madison called Gold Medal Tuesdays. He's still a contractor for Remington, and after the Olympics he may expand his broadcast career.
It's a golden age of sports in Wisconsin, so Matt has a lot to talk about; and he's also a contributor.
“Yeah! I guess I am!” he said.
"I gotta remember I am still a curler. I still have a full time job that I got to go to. It's still like a niche sport. You know, I'm just happy that I get to take this opportunity as far as it goes, which is the Olympics."
No other family allowed at Games
It’s heartbreaking that foreign fans and family will not be allowed in China to watch the Games. The Hamilton parents — Cathy and Scott — will have to watch from McFarland.
"Something that stuck out the most about 2018 — seeing half the stands filled with USA fans and family members," Becca said. "Matt had 15 friends fly over; I had six. The support we had from back home! So it's definitely going to be a change of pace, but I'm very fortunate to have at least my brother here and cheer me on along the way."
China will have its challenges, from travel, to testing, to COVID-19 protocols where athletes will be expected to be in one of two places only: their competition site or their hotel/lodging.
“I just like to control the things I can control and everything else, I just kind of go with the flow,” Matt said. “I watched a great documentary on Bruce Lee recently. He had a quote: ‘Be water.’
“Don't actually think about your reaction. You just kind of react and flow with whatever's happening around you. So I just really liked that quote, and I think that's going to be kind of the mantra going into China: just be the water.”
With that, the interview with the Hamiltons was over. Was there anything that they wanted to add?
“Just," Matt said, "that I’m the better Hamilton."
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Curlers Matt and Becca Hamilton both return to Olympic Games