Regardless of whether or not he was selected to represent Canada in mixed doubles for next month’s Winter Olympics, John Morris was always going to Beijing.
Morris has helped the Australian mixed doubles team of Tahli Gill and Dean Hewitt reach new heights the past few seasons as their coach. The tandem will become the first Aussie curling team to compete in the Olympics this year after defeating South Korea in a last-chance qualifier in December.
The two-time Olympian, who had recently lost in the semi-final of the Tim Hortons Curling Trials with his four-person team, was with Gill and Hewitt in Leeuwarden, Netherlands when they made history a few weeks before Christmas.
The 43-year-old said the qualifier was “one of the best events” he’s ever been a part of in his curling career.
“I’ve had a wonderful relationship with the Aussies,” Morris told the media on Monday. “You guys probably don’t know them yet, but I’m sure you’ll get to know them during the Olympics. They’re two wonderful individuals that really have come a long way in curling and we’ve developed a really good relationship.”
Gill and Hewitt actually moved to Canmore, Alta., where Morris lives, curls and works, this season in order to train and prepare for the Olympics.
Ahead of their trip to Beijing, Morris, mixed doubles partner Rachel Homan and coach Scott Pfeifer have been isolating in a cabin in Canmore, keeping busy with outdoor fun such as ice fishing and snowshoeing in an effort to avoid the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible. They’ve also had a few scrimmages at the local curling club against the Aussies.
“We’ve had a couple practice games against them in a social distancing manner, getting ready which I think has helped them, but also has really helped us because we didn’t get very many games this year,” explained Morris.
If Morris was not competing at the Olympics this year, he would have still likely been at the Winter Games coaching Australia. That all changed when he and Homan got the call from Curling Canada to represent the country. Morris won’t be working double duty in Beijing, calling Canada his “No. 1 priority.”
“We’ve had some great chats and I’ve let them know…our ride essentially is over together,” said Morris. “Our journey is over until after the Olympics because wearing the Maple Leaf, wearing that Red and White trumps all. My country is counting on me. Will it be hard for me? [It will] probably be one of my hardest games to play mentally because I’m such good friends with these guys. And will I be cheering for them in other games that they are playing? Yes.
“But I will not be helping them in any way while I’m over there because I got the Maple Leaf on my back and there ain’t no kangaroo on the Maple Leaf.”
The mixed doubles discipline has helped nations new to curling get their foot in the door and compete at major events on the international stage. A record 48 teams competed at the 2019 World Mixed Doubles Curling Championship.
“I think there’s more nations that actually curl in mixed doubles that curl in men’s and women’s,” said Morris, who won the first Olympic mixed doubles gold medal in South Korea four years ago with Kaitlyn Lawes. “It’s a lot more accessible, it’s a quicker game. I think that’s what a lot of nations, especially newer nations to curling, really like that about mixed doubles.”
Gill, 22, and Hewitt, 27, have played at two World Mixed Doubles Championships together, highlighted by a fourth-place finish in 2019, losing to the United States in the bronze-medal game.
“It would have been very hard for a team like Australia to make the men’s or women’s Olympics, but it’s [mixed doubles team] a wonderful story. These two people wanted to go to the Olympics, worked their absolute tails off and they’re wonderful human beings and I think it’s a great story to see that two people can have a dream and within three years have that come to fruition,” explained Morris. “I think it's something very inspiring for many other young athletes and other countries around the world.”
Canada will battle Australia in their second last round robin game on Feb. 6. Their first game is on Feb. 2 against Bruce Mouat and Jennifer Dodds of Great Britain.