Italy Swooning for Its Newest Rock Star

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

PINEROLO, Italy, Feb. 20 -- The most unlikely hero of these Winter Olympics wears glasses by Prada and a belt by Gucci, and he found himself in downtown Turin over the weekend, sitting in a taxi that was going nowhere amid a snarl of traffic, late for an appearance on a radio show. The cab driver offered some quick advice. Walk, he said, because he would get there more quickly. Just walk.

So Joel Retornaz got out of the cab and stepped into what just might be his new life.

"It was impossible to go on," Retornaz said Monday. People were everywhere. "I want a picture," they said. "I want a signature." Retornaz and his teammate, Marco Mariani, posed and signed, signed and posed, all the while trying to explain that they were late for the appointment. It mattered not.

"We couldn't walk," Retornaz said.

Understand that Retornaz is, of all things, a curler, and understand, too, that he is from Italy, where curling is something less than an afterthought, barely more than a nonentity.

That is, until the last week, when something strange happened to Retornaz and his Italian teammates: They started winning curling matches. In the Olympics. Then, something stranger: People started watching, as many as 5 million per match in a nation that boasts 58 million people. It has been, on some days, the most-watched sport of these Olympics in Italy, something unpredictable for a sport that, as first-time curling fan Danilo Roccati said, "is a little peculiar."

So who better than the peculiar Retornaz to lead the way? At 22, he is the youngest "skip" -- a position akin to being a captain and the player responsible for making the most important tosses -- in the tournament. He sports a distinctive hairstyle that is spiked on top, cropped on the sides, lengthy in the back, an Italian mullet. He has sideburns. He occasionally chews tobacco. He grew up wearing a cowboy hat on a horse farm known as Happy Ranch, and if you ask why that might be, his father, Andre, would smile through his shaggy gray mustache and say, "Because we are happy people about life, generally speaking."

"Yes," nodded Retornaz's mother, Renata, smiling with approval. "We are happy. Very happy."

This part had nothing to do with curling, Retornaz's family members said before they filed into the Italians' match against Switzerland on Monday afternoon here, carrying with them a giant banner with a portrait of Joel sliding a curling stone. Retornaz may have been thrust into the Italian spotlight, a celebrity built in less than a week, posing with his teammates for photos in newspapers and appearing on national cable television in the United States. But he and his family say he was grounded in life before, well, before anyone in Italy knew that curling wasn't simply bocce on ice. Say, like, a week ago.

"He's not changed," Renata Retornaz said. "And he won't change."

Just 75 minutes before his match Monday, that seemed to be true. Retornaz, wearing black pants rolled up to his shins, warmed up with some teammates and coaches by kicking a small soccer ball off the walls and to each other just outside the Pinerolo Palaghiaccio, the arena. The Italians needed a victory over the Swiss to have a chance to move beyond the round-robin portion of the tournament and into the semifinals. Yet if there was any nervousness here, it wasn't apparent behind those thick, black-rimmed Pradas, the look that has made him the most distinctive player in the tournament.

"I think he looks great," said Lynn Baird, the wife of U.S. curler Scott Baird, who traveled from Bemidji, Minn., to support the team. "He wears it well. And he's a very, very good curler."

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