Wednesday 7 December 2016
Bordered by some of curling’s strongest nations in Switzerland, Italy and Germany; Austria can often be forgotten about – and you can’t blame anyone for forgetting. In recent years, Austria have been relatively quiet on the European circuit, being absent from the men’s top division since 2002 and not having two consecutive years in the A group since 1996.
But that 20-year drought finally ended thanks to Sebastian Wunderer’s rink. Alongside Mathias Genner, Martin Reichel, Philipp Nothegger and Markus Forejtek; Wunderer managed to keep his side in the A-Division for the Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2017 (17-25 November) in St Gallen, Switzerland, despite the odds being against them, at the 2016 championships in Braehead, Scotland.
After holding a strong Swiss side to a respectable defeat, Austria defeated Finland before shocking hosts Scotland and toppling Denmark in the round robin, at Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2016 in November.
However, stumbling near the end of the round robin after losing a couple of tough games to Sweden and Russia, Austria found themselves playing Netherlands in the World Challenge Series, with a place at the Ford World Men's Curling Championship 2017 (in Edmonton, Canada: 1-9 April) at stake. Despite winning the first game, they lost the next two, leaving the underdogs without the ultimate prize to finish off a successful season.
But that says a lot about the team. The fact that they avoid relegation in their first year back, but are still disappointed with how the tournament ended shows how much ambition there is in the national team.
“If somebody would’ve asked us before we would have been very satisfied winning two or three,” says Uli Kapp, who coaches the national team in Kitzbühel.
“I think I would say much the same as Uli just did", says Sebastian, “If anyone would’ve said this before we would’ve been happy with it. But, now after the loss in the third challenge it’s a bit tough.”
Going back to the triumph over Scotland - that was one of the shock games of the tournament and a first for Austria. Monday 21 November 2016 will go down as the first time that Austria defeated Scotland in a men’s match.
“It was a pretty awesome moment, but I think the whole stadium was against us because they were all Scottish fans,” said Sebastian, “We went into the game thinking ‘Ok, if we play really well then we can make it a close game’ but we never thought we would be going against them equally, so we surpassed our expectations.”
As with any underdog story, these achievements didn’t just happen overnight. Years of training came before Wunderer’s rink took to the Braehead ice, right back to the days of their junior careers. Sebastian is now in his tenth year in the sport, after trying out curling with a friend when he was younger.
“In the first two or three years we just played for fun and played a couple of small tournaments two or three hours away by car and then we got a junior national coach and then we slowly started improving and rising up on the international level.
“The most crucial step was with our junior national coach Katja Schweizer. She did the major butt-kicking we needed and then we just worked on ourselves a lot throughout the years and we hope we can keep on doing that,” he said.
“She gave them the basics of what it means to be an athlete more and a competitive curler,” said Uli, “I tried to implement some structures and work on the programme with the curlers we had to get the best result out of it and I think we’re steadily going up, but it’s always a challenge.”
Uli is no stranger to the curling community, having won five World Curling Championship medals and four European Curling Championship medals between 1991 and 2008. Now after four years at the Austrian Curling Association, he has taken Wunderer’s team under his wing and taught them a few tricks as their coach.
“They’re really smart guys. They like to be competitive,” he says, “Generally, I would say we have a close and good relationship. Of course it needs time but we have good teamwork.”
“The relationship is really good,” says Sebastian, “My team have known each other since we were small and I’ve known one of them since we were born. We’re really close friends. The oldest one, Markus Forejtek is usually on another team, he joined us for the tournament, but we’re all the same kind of idiots so we get along pretty well.”
Considering I spoke to the two just an hour after their defeat to Netherlands, you can tell that they have fun off the rink. Other teams may have responded to me in a more subdued manner after a defeat, but they keep the interview light and humorous. They seem to be primarily focused on staying positive and looking forwards.
“I hope we are fighting for a spot at the 2022 Olympics, that’s our main goal,” says Sebastian, “Also, I think we can secure a spot for the Worlds next year and then get some points at the Worlds. Maybe start rising up a little bit in the ranks - so that’s what we hope for.”
When asked about where they see their side this time next year when the Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships head to St Gallen in Switzerland, the optimism continues.
“I think fifth or sixth place next year. At least seventh so that we have that spot for the Worlds,” says Sebastian. Uli cuts in to simply say, “Don’t go to the World Challenge game.”
And the laughing continued.
by Michael Houston, feature writer