Matt and Becca Hamilton, Olympic curlers from Wisconsin, had a bad habit of turning their matches into soap operas. They nitpicked each other. They argued. Sometimes they even yelled.
None of this would have been such a big deal — they are siblings, after all — if they had not been doing it out on the ice during competitions, in full public view. It was a recipe for disaster, and it was especially hard on their mother, Cathy, who just wanted them to get along.
“We bickered quite a bit,” said Matt Hamilton, 28. “We both hate to lose, and we were losing a lot.”
Now, they are competing as medal contenders for the United States in mixed doubles at the 2018 Winter Olympics. To get there, they had to transform their on-ice partnership, starting with a heart-to-heart conversation last March.
They agreed on a handy way to deal with disagreements on the road to the games.
“We came up with a safe word,” said Becca Hamilton, 27, “so if things were starting to go bad, we’d say that word and that meant we had to drop everything.”
The safe word is a secret.
“Oh, we don’t tell anyone,” said Becca Hamilton, who teamed with her brother Thursday for a 9-3 victory against Anastasia Bryzgalova and Alexander Krushelnitckii, who are from Russia.
Not long after the International Olympic Committee announced in June 2015 that it was adding mixed doubles to the slate of events for Pyeongchang, officials from USA Curling approached the Hamiltons to ask if they wanted to form a team. It was framed as a suggestion, but they also recognized that they did not have much choice in the matter.
“We’d tried it in the past, just in leagues at our club,” Becca Hamilton said, “but we weren’t very good because we’d argue and not get along the greatest.”
It is worth pausing here to emphasize that the Hamiltons do say they love each other. But they describe themselves as ultracompetitive, and as they attempted another foray into mixed doubles, they found their matches together were little more than glorified grease fires — just like when they were growing up.
There is no room for error in mixed doubles, which is a more compact version of curling, the sport that involves using brooms to direct a heavy granite rock down a sheet of ice toward a target.
Compared with the team events, athletes in mixed doubles put fewer rocks in play over the course of fewer ends, which are like innings in baseball. So mistakes are magnified, and the Hamiltons were making their share by constantly questioning each other over strategy.
John Landsteiner, who plays alongside Matt Hamilton on the U.S. men’s team, said he had largely limited his exposure to mixed doubles to a recreational league with his wife. But he has seen enough to know there could be land mines.
“It’s just you and your partner out there, so communication is extremely important,” Landsteiner said. “And that’s hard to do with just two people. This is just my experience, but you might argue a little more. If you’re playing with four people, you might just get outnumbered and the conversation ends in a hurry.”
The Hamiltons appeared in danger of bottoming out in March 2017 at the Mixed Doubles National Championships. After another slow start, they addressed their mutual concerns during a 20-minute car ride: How do we fix this? They agreed that if one person wanted to take a particular type of shot, let it rip. They were wasting too much time quarreling over every little decision.
“We knew we had to trust each other more,” Matt Hamilton said. “Becca’s a heck of a shooter.”
The Hamiltons wound up winning that tournament and carried that momentum forward through the trials in December.
In addition to competing in mixed doubles, they will represent the United States on their respective four-person men’s and women’s teams. The only other curler who could pull double duty here is Jenny Perret of Switzerland, who will compete in mixed doubles and is an alternate in the women’s team event.
If they are able to advance to all their various medal rounds, the Hamiltons are looking at nearly three straight weeks of sweeping, without much opportunity to rest their soon-to-be-weary backs.
“We’ve got the hardest workload, I think,” Becca Hamilton said.
John Shuster, who will be making his fourth Olympic appearance for the U.S. men, noted that he had the same goal of competing in two events, until he and his mixed doubles partner, Cory Christensen, lost to the Hamiltons in the finals at the Olympic trials.
“I’m not concerned,” Shuster said of the Hamiltons’ potential fatigue. “Matt’s one of those guys who just has a lot in the tank.”
But just to be safe, Brian McWilliams, the head trainer for USA Curling, added extra cardiovascular training to the Hamiltons’ workouts in the runup to the games. McWilliams said he also planned to monitor their energy levels. He brought a couple of compression sleeves to boost circulation in their legs between matches.
“I’m not worried about the mixed doubles,” McWilliams said. “I’m more worried about how they’re going to feel toward the end of their team events.”
But the Hamiltons are certain they are ready for the physical and familial challenges.
“We’ve come a long way,” Matt Hamilton said.
Still, old habits can be hard to break. When a photographer posted a picture of Matt barking at Becca during a recent competition in Ontario, their mother weighed in on Twitter.
“Love you two ... be friends,” Cathy Hamilton wrote, adding a face-palm emoji for good measure.