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US Johnson Sisters Hoping for Olympic Curling Medal

The 500-year-old sport of curling will be a full Olympic medal event at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin for just the third time after making its debut at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. The U.S. Women's team is led by a pair of sisters who come from a family with a long curling history.

U.S. Women's Curling skip, or captain, Cassie Johnson, says her great-grandfather got the family started in the sport. Growing up in Bemidji, Minnesota, she tagged along to her parents' matches, but did not actually start playing until 1987, when she took to the ice with her older sister and U.S. team vice-skip, Jamie. Jamie explains what it is like to play with her sister and go to the Olympics together.

"I really enjoy playing with Cassie, my sister," said Ms. Johnson. "We have curled together on teams for 18 years so it has been a long, long time. And this year is just going to be unbelievable. I mean, I have no idea. I am sure once I get there it will just be huge and a lot more than I expected, but I am really excited about it."

Cassie and Jamie are joined on the team by Jessica Schultz, Maureen Brunt and alternate Courtney George. The women's curling squad was the first of the U.S. winter sports teams to be named for the Turin Games, and Jessica says that is an advantage.

"I believe the longer training process has helped us mentally and physically prepare for the Olympics. Since we found out, we do not feel like we are running around with our heads cut off, trying to get everything in right before the Olympics," said Ms. Schultz. "So it has been really nice to know for a while that we have been going."

The U.S. women's curlers will arrive in Turin as the top-ranked nation in points among the 10 teams to qualify, based upon their finishes in the previous three world championships. They are considered a definite medal contender after their fourth place finish at Salt Lake City in 2002. No American team has ever won an Olympic medal in curling.

Cassie and Jamie Johnson have often been teased about being telepathic when they play, because they do not discuss shot strategy as often as most teams. But Cassie says it's more a matter of experience.

"Usually you see the third [vice-skip] and the skip discuss the shot for quite a while," said Cassie Johnson. "And people think 'well, that's weird, because they hardly spoke to each other. They hardly communicated.' Well, it is because we have been curling together for so long that we know the best shot. We do not really need to explain it to each other about what is going to happen because we both know already from experience."

If you are not that familiar with curling, you are not alone. The sport is played primarily in countries with cold climates. Curling is a team sport played on an ice surface 4.4 meters wide and 44.5 meters long, with four players per side.

The game is made up of 10 ends, which are similar to innings. In an end, all four players from each team slide two 19 kilogram stones toward a round scoring area known as the house. After all 16 stones have been delivered, a team scores one point for each of its stones that is closer to the center of the house than any of its opponent's stones.

All four players on a team are involved in each delivery. The skip decides on the shot selection and holds her broom as a target. The other two players vigorously sweep the ice in front of the stone to help guide it to the target.

The 10 Olympic women's curling teams will play in a week-long round robin to determine the four semifinalists who will compete for medals. Great Britain is the defending champion, with the curling competition set to take place February 13 to 24.