SPRINGDALE -- Dominik Maerki thought his days as an elite curler were over. Then an unexpected phone call last summer changed everything.
Maerki, a native of Switzerland, went from fine jewelry watchmaker to Olympic athlete almost in the blink of an eye, and now has the chance to add another fine metal to his name in the form of an Olympic gold medal.
Curling is played by two teams of four players. The teams alternate throws toward a circular target called the house. The object is to have more stones closer to the center than your opponent after all 16 of the 40-pound granite stones have been thrown. Curling originated in the 16th Century in Scotland.
His path to South Korea wasn't conventional by any means. After seeing a chance to participate in the 2014 games slip away, Maerki figured that was it, and shifted his focus to other things. Curling was always a part of his life, just not at the highest level anymore. He still maintained contact with the men he teamed with, and that connection led to this opportunity.
"I played on this Swiss team as a player," Maerki said last week during a practice session at The Jones Center for Families. "After juniors, we split up and I joined another team and we got pretty good. We were close to making the Olympics four years ago in Sochi, Russia, but a different team went instead.
"After that, for me, it was basically over."
He was on vacation in Miami shortly after that 2014 disappointment, where he met a Fayetteville beauty at a nightclub. He tapped her on the shoulder and a romance began. He married Isabel in 2015 and he made Fayetteville his new home.
Maerki had spent four years learning to craft fine watches. He now owns his own business in Fayetteville where he makes and repairs timepieces.
He never lost his love for curling, a game he started playing at the age of 6, and soon found a curling group at The Jones Center. He also still competed in some tournaments, he said, but not at an elite level.
So when he got a call last summer from his former team in Switzerland, it was unexpected.
"The team that I played with back then called me and asked if I wanted to represent Switzerland in the Olympics this year," Maerki said. "They needed a fifth player. And because I still knew how to play and I know the team really well, they chose me."
Time leaped forward for the 27-year-old Maerki as he shifted his focus from friendly games at The Jones Center where the stakes are a winner's breakfast, to the highest level in the world.
"Since this summer, obviously I practice way more and I traveled back and forth to Switzerland," he said. "I've gone up to Minnesota and Wisconsin where curling is more popular. And I'm really lucky here with The Jones Center where I'm able to practice."
On a Thursday morning in January, Maerki arrives before 8 a.m. at The Jones Center with his training partner, Mark Curtis. Curtis is a lifelong curler and grew up in Wisconsin. He started sliding the 40-pound granite stones with his father and grandfather at the age of 12.
Curtis grew up in Portage, a community of just more than 10,000 located just north of Madison, where curling is considered "the sport of record in the town," he said.
"Everybody in high school partakes in the sport of curling," Curtis said. "It's part of the physical education program."
Curtis has been hugely instrumental in bringing the sport to The Jones Center. He connected with other Midwestern natives who have relocated to Northwest Arkansas and they have built a burgeoning curling community.
Maerki and Curtis connected when Dominik was in Fayetteville visiting Isabel, who was his girlfriend at the time. Maerki found out about Curtis and the ice rink in Springdale, and he soon joined the group.
"I didn't know who he was," Curtis said. "So I went on the curling website and found out who the Maerkis are and realized I had a gem."
Curtis and Maerki had the ice to themselves on this morning. They prepared the rink for practice, bringing more than a dozen frozen stones onto the ice for an hour-long practice. It's a ritual they have been doing for a while, and the session ends with a friendly game, and the loser buys the other's breakfast. Curtis said the competition has been pretty even.
Training with an Olympic-level curler has been a unique experience, said Curtis, who lives on Beaver Lake.
"This is pretty amazing," Curtis said. "He's a special person."
Maerki left for Switzerland on Jan. 28 to practice with his team. Maerki is the fifth player, or alternate, on the team and would only see the ice in the Olympics if one of his teammates could not compete. The team will be in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the opening ceremonies on Feb. 9.
The curling competition will begin Feb. 14 and will consist of round-robin competition for the 10 teams in the Olympic field. From there, the top four teams will advance to the medal round.
Switzerland is expected to be in the hunt for a medal after winning the bronze at the 2017 World Championships.
"It's pretty hard to imagine how big this will be, the people around and see other people from Switzerland who are competing for medals," Maerki said.
Maerki said hearing the Swiss national anthem on the Olympic stage will be something he will always cherish.
"That will be very special," he said. "I always get goosebumps if I hear my national anthem. To be with the team and to be there ... yeah."
Sports on 02/04/2018
Print Headline: Stone's Throw