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."
Which helped him, over one week, change the perception of an entire sport in the host country. Italy had never appeared in an Olympic curling tournament before and the men's team gained entry here only because host nations are granted spots in every event. When a Canadian named Roger Schmidt was hired four years ago to build the Italian program from scratch so that it could be respectable come Olympic time, the sport was "not even on the radar," he said. "Not even one letter of it was on the radar."
To date, Schmidt said there are all of 150 curlers in all of Italy. And their prospects for the Olympics?
"They probably could have been speculated to win, on the men's side, one game," said Jim Henderson, who is covering the Olympic tournament for the curling magazine Sweep! "It was a tossup whether they could beat New Zealand going into the Games, and they would not be expected to beat, probably, anybody else, because there's no historical evidence to demonstrate that they could have beaten anybody."
Indeed, the Italians lost their first two matches by narrow margins. But then, they beat two teams expected to do much better, Germany and the United States. People began noticing. The stands at Pinerolo Palaghiaccio began to fill up for Italian matches. The crowds chanted and sang. People who had never heard of curling before the Olympics started to take note.
And when Italy bounced back from an 11-3 loss to Norway with -- can't be, can it? -- a victory over 29-time world champion Canada, people started tuning in even more, and Retornaz was stopped on the street to preach about his sport, about which Italians are almost wholly unfamiliar. It involves sliding a 42-pound stone across a long sheet of ice toward a target area while teammates sweep the ice in front of the stone to speed it up or direct it toward the desired spot. It is, Italians say, something like bocce, a game they understand.
"But it's very strange," said Andrea Miola, who traveled from Turin on Monday to watch his first curling match. "It's something about [which] the Italians don't know."
So it makes sense, then, that there were times during the tournament when the Italian crowd -- waving flags and chanting "I-tal-ia! I-tal-ia!" as enthusiastically as possible -- cheered at the wrong times and sat silent when they might have gone crazy. "They're learning," Retornaz said.
Monday, a gaggle of schoolchildren cheered Retornaz's every move, whether they knew what was happening or not. When Retornaz and his mates appeared before the match, the arena thundered with squeals, and the young man, the collar to his white shirt turned up, waved to the crowd. At the far end of the arena hung two banners that read "Forza Italia!" and "Forza Joel!" -- Go Italia! and Go Joel!
Alas, the most unlikely hero of these Olympics and his teammates met a quick end on Monday. Switzerland jumped out to a 4-0 lead, and Italy never recovered in a 10-2 loss. Afterward, Retornaz stayed on the ice a bit longer, waving and giving thanks as the Italian fans chanted "Jo-el! Jo-el!"
A life changed by a few slides of a stone and sweeps of a broom, it would seem.
"For me, even my town, I think they don't recognize me," Retornaz said. "It's brand new for me. I don't know if being recognized is going to happen or not [after the Olympics]. I still feel the same."