BLAINE, Minn. - It started a few years ago as nothing more than a conversation over lunch.
“Would you wanna play?” joked John Benton about his chat with Todd Birr. “I don't know, would you?
Todd Birr, a veteran of the world championships, and John Benton, a 2010 Olympian - both employees at the Four Seasons curling center in Blaine - had the idea to make one more run for the Olympics – together.
“I didn't know it was a question. I thought he was telling me we're going,” Birr laughs as he recalls the meeting. “I mean, he is the boss.”
It didn’t take long for Team Birr to complete that comeback, taking second at this year’s Nationals. But when it came time to select the teams that were to be admitted to USA Curling’s High Performance Program and would compete at the Olympic Trials, they were not taken.
“It was pretty shocking, it was pretty heartbreaking,” said Tom O’Connor. “John called me and we talked. Then we went through our options and then we took the appropriate path.”
The path was a letter to the selection committee asking them to reconsider. But USA Curling would not.
“I’m a pretty optimistic person, but there were days that this was an uphill battle,” Benton recalls. “And I didn't think this was going to happen.”
Citing a lack of international success, USA Curling believed that Team Birr did not meet the requirements to be a discretionary selection.
So, they took their appeal to the Hearing Panel of the Judicial Committee within United States Curling, complete with their case.
“The selection committee was required to apply objective factors,” said Team Birr Lawyer Marc Beyer. “And ultimately the 'sin,' if you will, the mistake the selection committee made, is that they had these published factors they were to apply but they really didn't consider the factors that they published.”
“It was certainly part of the argument and their opinion and we respect their opinion,” said Rick Patzke, USA Curling CEO. “The selection procedures were published and publicly available and the criteria said international competitive excellence was one of the criteria for a discretionary selection.”
That panel agreed, granting Todd and John, along with Tom O'Connor and Hunter Clawson, a spot at this week’s curling trials, giving the team the chance they'd fought for.
“I had to pull over,” said John Benton. “There was a lot of screaming going on in my vehicle.”
“I was at the YMCA downtown,” says O’Connor. “I muttered a couple of inappropriate terms and people probably thought I was crazy.”
Crazy? Maybe. Determined? Definitely.
Just making it to the Olympic Trials isn’t enough.
“We didn't fight just to get there,” says Benton.
“There’s a lot of work to do yet,” says Birr. “It's not our first dance.”
Certainly not their first, but maybe their hardest and most rewarding.