ICE QUEENS SET TO MIX IT IN NEW OLYMPIC DISCIPLINE
British Curling’s elite athletes will feature heavily in a powerful line-up at the inaugural Aberdeen Mixed Doubles Championship this weekend (20-22 December), which promises to provide a form guide for the nationals early in the New Year.
The elevation of mixed doubles to Olympic status has seen many leading players in the Scottish teams that play regularly on the international men’s and women’s circuits form new partnerships to give themselves a second opportunity to qualify for major tournaments, including the world championships and Winter Olympics.
That is epitomised by the inclusion in the line-up of Eve Muirhead, the nation’s most decorated curler of recent years, who partners Bobby Lammie having confirmed her return to form following major hip surgery when she skipped her team to the final of last month’s European Championships, where they were beaten in a dramatic final end by Olympic champions Team Hasselborg.
“It’s exciting to have the mixed doubles coming up in Aberdeen,” said the former world and two-time European champion.
“For me, it’s my first time really taking on a mixed doubles competition knowing that you’ve got the Scottish Championships coming up post this event, so it’s a good opportunity for me and Bobby to really work hard together and figure each other out.
“In mixed doubles now there is a big opportunity ahead of you, because obviously it’s made its first appearance at the Winter Olympic Games last year, so whenever there’s an Olympic discipline opportunity you obviously want to give it your best shot.
“It will definitely be interesting this weekend. There’s a lot of teams and athletes from the performance programme, so it will be very different in terms of us playing against our team-mates which will be a little strange, but I think it’s going to be a good event and for British Curling as a whole it’s good to showcase that Scotland can produce and will produce very strong mixed doubles partners and pairs.”
While Muirhead has dominated the domestic women’s curling scene over the past decade, the dominant female figure in Scottish mixed doubles has been five-time national champion Gina Aitken who has been playing regularly on the international circuit over the past year with Scott Andrews, part of the men’s team which won silver at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.
They will go in as favourites, but she knows they can expect fierce competition not least because Bruce Mouat and Duncan Menzies, the men who have previously helped her accrue that haul of domestic title wins, have both entered the event with new partners.
“We have had a few training games against the teams that we will be up against this weekend and we know we've got a lot of high quality games coming up,” said Aitken.
“Bruce and Duncan have both played doubles before, but doubles involves a lot of shot-making just like the team game so every one of the other squad teams will be tough to beat and on that, it's a good chance to play a lot of the teams who will also be at the Scottish Mixed Doubles Champs.
“On the tour we end up playing a lot of the same teams so getting to play some new people will be a great chance to see how they are taking on the new discipline.”
Andrews was injured for last season’s Scottish Championships, but Aitken won her fifth title with Duncan Menzies standing in and the youngster, who is part of Ross Paterson’s rink who won European Championship bronze last month, will play this weekend with Sophie Sinclair, part of Team Jackson. Sinclair represented Scotland at this year’s World Championships and was alternate for Team Muirhead during those recent European Championships.
“I’m looking forward to getting started in my first mixed doubles event of the 2019/20 season,” said Menzies.
“Sophie and I have had a strong pre-season training in the NCA playing matches and drills against the other British curling pairs and we’re looking forward to trying out what we’ve learned in competitions.
“We are seeing this coming weekend as a training weekend in preparation for the Scottish mixed doubles where there will be very high standard opposition to test ourselves against and find out what we need to work on.”
Aitken previously partnered Mouat over a five year period in which they won the title four times and after concentrating on playing full-time on the men’s circuit, he is also forming a new partnership with Jen Dodds, a member of the women’s team which won a silver medal at last month’s European Championships.
“I’m really excited to start playing mixed doubles again, because I don’t think I’ve played a competitive match for a couple of years,” said Mouat.
“It’s weird trying to get back into the idea of it, but it should be a lot of fun and getting to play with Jen, who I get to train with a lot as well, will be a great experience for both of us.
“It’ll be different, having only played with Gina before, but Jen’s a great curler and a really good sweeper, so I’m excited to see where we can get to this weekend.
“It could be a bit strange playing against Gina, but I played against her a couple of times before, more in practice games than anything else and there should be good rivalry.”
Mouat’s regular team-mates Grant Hardie, Bobby Lammie and Hammy McMillan, with whom he won both a Grand Slam and the European titles last year before continuing to climb the world rankings this season, are also all competing in Aberdeen this weekend.
There is also the prospect of coming up against more established pairings, including former Scottish champions, Judith and Lee McLeary, a husband and wife partnership, English champions, brother and sister pairing of Anna and Ben Fowler and former Scottish champions Jane Stirling and Fraser Kingan, while the event has drawn international interest.
Having been drawn in a different section from his former partner, Mouat consequently knows he and Aitken will be made to earn the right to face one another in the knockout stages.
“Facing a lot of players who are in our (British Curling) podium teams could be quite interesting as well,” Mouat acknowledged.
“I think we have Hammy and Sophie Jackson in our section and Kyle and Lauren Gray, so it will be good to play both of them and then some old opponents that I’ve not played against in a while like the McLearys and the Fowlers, so it should be a really good weekend ahead of Christmas.”
Eve Muirhead & Bobby Lammie
Jen Dodds & Bruce Mouat
Lauren Gray & Kyle Waddell
Vicky Wright & Grant Hardie
Sophie Jackson & Hammy McMillan
Naomi Brown & Michael Goodfellow
Sophie Sinclair & Duncan Menzies
Gina Aitken & Scott Andrews
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Images: Perthshire Picture Agency - Graeme Hart.