China's man in Canada

The Chinese women’s curling team (yes, China has a women’s curling team) captured an Olympic bronze medal this morning, whipping Switzerland 12-6. Watching it all unfold from the first row—and shedding a few tears afterwards—was a big bear of a man dressed in a red China jacket: Dan Rafael, their Canadian coach.

“I’m a little emotional,” said the Montrealer, who has helped transform the Communist state into a curling powerhouse. “It’s been two-and-a-half years of my life. What can I say? It’s worth it.”

Although the image still generates giggles, those who follow curling understand just how good the Chinese rink has become. In a country with 1.3 billion people—including 1.299999999 billion who have absolutely no idea what a double take-out is—four women with brooms have emerged into much more than a worthy challenger. They are a dynasty in the making.

Led by skip Bingyu Wang, the so-called “Wang Gang” qualified for their first world championship in 2005. Three years later, they captured their first medal, a silver. And last year—less than a decade after the team was assembled from scratch—China won its first world title in women’s curling. Today’s Olympic bronze was also a first.

After the win, each player enjoyed a tearful embrace with Coach Rafael.

Under his leadership, the Chinese team has become famous for ten-hour practices and late-night strategy sessions. Unlike, say, Canadian skip Cheryl Bernard—who is busy owning an insurance company when she isn’t drawing to the house—the Chinese squad does nothing but curl. They are constantly traveling from tournament to tournament, including long stints in Alberta, and rarely see their families. Even Rafael admitted today that such a rigorous regime wouldn’t fly with the curlers in his home country. “I doubt it,” he said. “Different culture. Different system. How many Canadians can you tell: ‘You won’t be home for six months. All you’re going to do is curl and do what we tell you.’ That’s just the way it is.”

When asked if the grueling schedule has taken a toll on his own life, Rafael answered this way: “I think the person you should be asking is my wife.” (It’s Sue, by the way. And he says he’s going to call you.)

Rafael also coaches the Chinese men’s team, but they’re not as good as the gals, finishing a distant 8th at the Vancouver Games. Whether he’s back next season is still unclear. His contract is up at the end of June, and although he would like to keep his current gig, he said he’s willing to listen to other offers before making a choice. “Sometimes you’ve got to think about being home.”

He does know one thing, though: he’ll be in the arena for this afternoon’s gold medal match-up between Bernard and the Swedes. “I can’t predict that game,” he said. “Canada is Canada, and you can’t take that away from them. They can beat anybody. But we’re talking about Annette Norberg—defending Olympic champion, three-time world champion. We’re talking about one of the best teams of all time. They showed us yesterday, if you’re not on your game you’re out the door.”

The same is true if you’re up against China.