Ulsrud heaved a huge sigh of relief when the Norwegian rink squeezed past Germany at the 2017 European Championships in St Gallen (SUI) last November to book their ticket to PyeongChang. It was a big result for the 46-year-old skip, after he lost out in the national championships to Steffen Walstad, 17 years his junior, who will represent Norway at the 2018 World Championships in Las Vegas (USA). “It was a massive relief for me to qualify for the Games,” says Ulsrud, who has been gracing the ice for more than 25 years and knows only too well just how difficult it is to keep on winning. “Our sport is on a professional footing now, and the competition is getting tougher and tougher.”
Originating from Scotland and the Netherlands in the 16th century, curling made its Olympic debut in Chamonix in 1924 but did not feature on the official programme again until Nagano 1998. The sport has since become a popular mainstay of the Winter Games, thanks in no small part to Ulsrud’s Norwegians and their improvised solution to an unexpected clothing problem in the lead-up to Vancouver 2010.
“We hadn’t received our official uniforms,” recalls Ulsrud. “So Christopher [Svae], one of my team-mates, decided to buy the famous harlequin trousers on the internet. We tried them on before the 2010 Games and wore them to training. People liked them and so we decided to wear them in the competition.”
Team Ulsrud’s trousers were a massive hit with global TV audiences and attracted more than 500,000 followers on social media. Though the Norwegian quartet lost to hosts Canada in the final, their striking attire caused a huge stir, prompting such demand for the trousers that the American firm that made them quickly ran out of stock.
Ulsrud and his team-mates continue to compete as amateurs, which presents considerable challenges. “We’ve got a few sponsors and we get a grant from the Norwegian Olympic Committee, but we all have jobs outside curling,” he explains. “Svae and I organise events at our curling club to raise the profile of our sport, while Haavard [Vad Petersson] runs a shop selling sweets and smoothies, and Torger [Nergaard] is an engineer.”
Ulsrud and his rink have now taken part in no fewer than 12 world and 16 European championships. Continental champions in 2010 and 2011, they landed the world title in 2014, defeating Sweden in the final. However, when they step out onto the ice at PyeongChang, they will not be ranked among the favourites. That mantle will be shared by Canada and the Swedish rink, skipped by the formidable Niklas Edin.
The Norwegians lost twice to Edin and co. at the 2017 European Championships: 9-7 in the round robin stage and 8-3 in the semi-finals. “Edin might seem unbeatable at times, but he is human,” reflects Ulsrud. “We’ve beaten him before and we just have to remember the recipe.”
As skip, Ulsrud will have the task of determining his team’s strategy and throwing the last two stones of each end; so he will have a major say in Norway’s quest to return to the podium in PyeongChang. Now pushing 50, the Norwegian is aware that PyeongChang 2018 probably represents his last real chance of glory.
“Winning the Olympics makes you part of a very select band,” he says. “I still don’t know what we’re going to do afterwards. We’ll take stock at the end of the season.” Whatever the future holds, Ulsrud has already made an indelible mark on the sport, thanks both to his impressive achievements… and those crazy trousers.