Monday, July 24, 2006

Olympic curler leaves country

Stunning news on the European curling front as the identity of the new player on Claudio Pescia's Swiss team is now public... and it's Joel Retornaz, the young Italian hero of Torino 2006 (photo).

Pescia is the former third for Ralph Stoeckli, 2003 world runner-up, fifth in Turin and a regular face on the World Curling Tour, including the Grand Slams. After six years curling together, Team Stoeckli has split, with Stockli and Simon Struebin enticing Markus Eggler, a 2002 Olympic silver medallist with Andi Schwaller, out of retirement to hold the broom and throw second stones. Jan Hauser, the 2003 world junior bronze medallist for Switzerland, throws third rocks.

Stoeckli was looking for a four-year committment to qualify for the curling show at Vancouver 2010. Pescia, Pascal Sieber and Marco Battilana weren't prepared for that, preferring to plan year-to-year while setting short-term goals. As such, rather than retire or take a breather from the sport, the three decided to stick together and bring in a new player.

Pescia, who holds dual Swiss-Italian citizenship and skipped Italy at a world championship years ago, spoke exclusively to The Curling News:

I met Joel in Lowell and spoke to him about his future, because I'm always interested in Italy's curling destiny, since I still feel a bonding after the five years I worked and played for them. It came out that Joel wasn't quite sure about (the future of) his Olympic team, since it was hand-picked. Then he lost the Italian championship against Stefano Ferronato of Cortina, because Joel played with his very young local team. So he may or may not have been picked as a player for the Europeans in December, but he didn't feel that comfortable with that situation.

Then I knew that Marco and Pascal always had a good time with him at curling tournaments and championships. We thought he might be the right candidate for us, since he's got a Swiss passport too. I remember him way back in the 90's, when I played and taught in Italy, when he was a young talented boy, willing to learn. All that helped us choose him as our new player.

There was another problem. Swiss curling is in transition: no longer will the national team qualify for the next season's European and World championships (winners will compete in the same year as much of the rest of the world does) and curling clubs hold team spots in the premier A-league – not the teams themselves. Which team would get Stoeckli's spot representing St. Gäller Bar? The alternative is to start fresh... but in C-League, with a two-year wait to get to the premier league.


The rule change, that forces new teams to start in C-league, is an unlucky thing. I personally don't like it at all. Luckily for us, everything went well: CC St. Galler Bär chose our team, surprisingly, and Ralph had to look further and found CC Basel-Regio... which had an A/B spot in the league. The former skip of that team quit playing and so Ralph could take over. It's Markus Eggler's home club anyway.

At the moment as we applied for the spot, our choice of Joel wasn't public yet... only for the board of the club which had to making the decision. I wanted to keep the integrity of everyone, in case the club decided against us. Most probably we wouldn't have formed this team, and Joel – maybe myself too – would have gone back to Italy! I don't think Marco and Pascal wouldn't have played for another club, and probably would have quit competitive curling, for a while at least.

Team Pescia has a new website and a goal, which is to win the Swiss championship and fly to Edmonton in April (current 2006 Swiss champ Andi Schwaller will rep Switzerland at December's Euro shootout). Retornaz still lives in Italy, so the squad will stay close to home and compete on the World Curling Tour Europe. 19-year-old Mario Freiberger has also joined the squad as alternate, and according to Pescia, he has an interesting Canadian story:

He (Mario) is happy to be part of a competitive men's team and is the perfect alternate cause he's a back-ender too. He's got an interesting background. He spent one year in P.E.I. as exchange student, played local bonspiels there and by accident he played in the Canadian Juniors for P.E.I., because their skip broke an arm right before the event. They asked Mario to throw fourth rocks and play third! They even reached the semi-final, but don't ask me when that was!

Retornaz now joins a list of Olympic athletes who have left their birth country for another. After a dizzying winter and spring of fame and glory, which saw millions of Italians watching his efforts on TV and roaring their support in public, what does he say about his newfound efforts to compete for Switzerland?

Don’t forget I am only 22 years old! I mean, I am still very young and I have the chance to play in the strongest national championship in Europe, with one of the strongest teams in the world. I don't think I could ask for more right now. If I don’t take his opportunity now, I don't think I am ever going to get it again.

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