Allison Flaxey—or as she is known around Country Malt Group, Alli Nimik—is working off a serious high right now, having just led her team to a serious upset in theworld of professional curling. Before we get into the details of how an underdog team from Ontario surprised everyone, we focused a little bit about how Alli got started in the sport. First I ask, “First things first—what the heck is Curling?”
Alli laughs for a second before saying, “It’s like shuffleboard on ice, but mixed with chess, and being really fit. That fitness part has been a recent addition – particularly in the last few years, it has become a key component. Balance and flexibility are pretty important. Staying calm under pressure is probably one of the most important skills.”
Q: How did you end up slinging huge rocks around on ice for fun?
Alli: I started at the age of four. The curling rocks weighed more than I did at the time. At first my older brother played, and I colored in the corner, while he had his practices and games, but then I got interested in what he was doing. Following my brother around into sports, following his example, was something I did. And then it just kind of stuck. Late in my teenager years is when I started to go full tilt into it. It’s so ingrained in my family that it would be hard not to be.
Q: How has your view of the sport changed as you’ve grown up?
Alli: Seeing the potential of what you can do is fun. The opportunity to be the number one in the world at anything is so rare and to be so close to winning an Olympic gold medal is amazing. Traveling all over the world – Europe, Korea—it’s amazing. I met my husband through curling. Also, I live to compete, and that translates well. Finding ways to win on the curling ice or finding ways to get through the brewery doors is a big drive for me.
Q: You met your husband through curling—how did that happen?
Alli: We met through curling at the 2008 Brier (Canadian Men’s Championships) in Winnipeg where he represented Northern Ontario. Later that year, we both represented our respective provinces in the Canadian Mixed [gender] championships. We developed a strong friendship, which
eventually led to a strong marriage. Caleb actually coaches our team, and another team [a Men’s team], and they went to the Olympics in 2014. He
coaches both teams, and he pushes both of his teams. Being able to go to Russia with Caleb was a big mentorship for me, to travel and see other
curlers around the world. Funny thing about that 2008 Mixed Canadian
Championships, I actually won them, we only had one loss all week, which was to Caleb’s team. Winning the event gave us the opportunity to
represent Canada at the 2009 World Mixed Doubles Championships in Italy. I got to go with my mother— she passed away last year. Seeing Europe with her was really special for me.
Q: Tell me about your current team.
Alli: We’ve been together two years. On the team, I’m the Skip – with that, I call the shots and direct the other members of the team. Also I throw the last two rocks of each end. It’s all listed as my married name, Flaxey [Team Flaxey]. And it’s been great. Really, it’s like traveling around with your best
friends or family. When you travel with your team, you make memories and you also learn so much about what makes them tick. It’s also about learning how to be great, which means you have to be selfish at times. But it’s also
being a team player, and supporting everyone else. It also translates to brewing beer—finding the right ingredients, finding that recipe and knowing that sometimes you have to be a little selfish to be great at something.
Q: That’s insightful. Your team had a pretty significant win recently. What were the specifics there?
Alli: It was the WFG Masters Cup event, the first competition in a series of six or seven events called the Grand Slam of Curling. These events have the biggest prize pools for curling, bringing in the top 15 teams in the world competing in gender teams (Men vs Men, Women vs Women). The prize pool is $125,000 CAD for each gender – and for taking 1st place, we got $30,000 of that.
Q: But they money is really just the icing on the cake, right?
Alli: Yeah, the real victory comes from the Olympic qualifier points we earned. We got 85 points for this event. This was one of the bigger ones.
Q: Tell me about the Masters Cup. How did it feel going into it, and how did the games roll out?
Alli: Being the start of the season—this was our 6th event of the season in total—this kind of big scale event allows you to break out in curling in a big way. It can give your team confidence. Winning in curling is rare. In the five years that the Women’s Masters Cup has been an event, three of them have
been won by the same team [Team Homan]. To know what it takes to win, and actually win, is incredibly hard in curling. To be here now, it gives us a different mindset going forward. During the Masters Cup we competed in eight games — we beat the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd seeds in the world.
Q: And your team was viewed as the underdog coming into the competition?
Alli: We were the underdogs coming in – we were seeded 11th in the world. We definitely are not going to be viewed as an underdog anymore, though.
Q: What were the key turning points in the competition? Any surprises?
Alli: Well, right out of the gate we beat the second seeded team in our first game – but game two and three we lost, and we lost them both right at the end of the game. We were up both games, but at the close they got away from us. We stopped playing the game the way that had allowed us to grab the lead. We stopped playing aggressively once we had the lead, and that led us to losing those games.
Q: It sounds like there was some trouble maintaining focus?
Alli: Maybe, yeah. Luckily we’re known as a very resilient team; we’re known for bouncing back really well, and we needed to win that fourth game in order to get out of the round robin and make it into the playoffs. In the fourth game, we played the current Canadian champions. We had our backs against the wall, but we rose to the occasion and won 8-3…I must say, it is great to beat the reigning Canadian champions. But we knew that we had to build off that win, and to continue to find ways to win moving forward. For our Game Five, we had a 7:30 AM tiebreaker. It was a nearly empty arena. It was a little daunting, but then we started to click, making tough shots in a tough atmosphere. Team Einarson was who we played against, and they were ranked 8th in the world at that time. It was in this game that we realized we could really be a force in the event– when we started playing the way we knew we could. That win propelled us forward for the rest of the competition.
Q: And going into that final game, how was that?
Alli: Playing against Rachael Homan and her team – their team is ranked the number one team in the world. She is from Ontario as well. Playing against her in the final, and winning, was really big for us. She is someone we will have to fight a few more times if we’re going to go to the Olympics. But we’re starting to learn exactly what we need to do to win against her team. This is the first win this team has against her, out of the four times we’ve played.
Q: Any surprises during the course of the whole event?
Alli: On a team level, I would say how we stole 17 points in the last four games. It’s an anomaly, but it just goes to show how well we were placing our shots, making it harder for the other teams to land theirs. Also my husband – our coach – got into the finals with both his teams [Team Jacobs for Men]. The other thing that surprised me was how much support we had from fans regarding the Canada Malting branding on our gear. People recognizing the brand is so awesome. I lived in Alberta for a few years, where the Masters were held this year. It feels like home for me in a sense. Being back there, and wearing the Canada Malting gear, and fans show up say that they recognized the brand, and that they would be cheering us on because of them – just all the support from everyone in the company and the brewing community has been fantastic. It really means a lot to have Canada Malting stand behind the team as much as they are.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the whole event?
Alli: Hands down, never having a chance to take a break. Each competition requires your top game at all times. You have to learn to be really good all the time, which can be hard to maintain throughout the course of eight games so close together.
Q: If you could, would you change anything about it all?
Alli: Oh jeez, no, I don’t think so. I’m a true believer in things happening for a reason. Even losing those middle two games taught us a lesson about having our backs against the wall.
Q: Do you have any hopes that your example might inspire others?
Alli: Absolutely. The sense of teamwork, and that final game, we knew that a handful of people were cheering for us. But we knew that most of the people in the world thought that we were going to be destroyed. So even when people don’t believe in you, you do it! Even if you’re not the favorite to win or succeed!
Q: Last question – What does the future look like now for you and your team?
Alli: We are now going to be a staple in the Grand Slam Events. We’ve got five or six more to compete in. Also we will be going to Switzerland in January on our European tour, hitting Scotland in March. Our international travels are important training for the Olympics. Seeing different teams, seeing how they play – it’s invaluable. Another new thing we’re doing is putting a focus rest and recovery so that we can maintain our peak performance. It’s funny, I find that I can’t help but do some work for at least half a day during these events – working with the brewers and other customers is definitely a way for me to relax and distract myself. But ultimately our plan is to be preparing and qualifying for the Olympics.