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Bemidji's Olympian: Curler Nicholson will miss toddler back home as she chases medal in Vancouver

Natalie Nicholson will carry Bemidji's hopes in the 2010 Olympics as a member of the Debbie McCormick rink. Play begins Tuesday in Vancouver. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Being in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games is a thrill for Bemidji curler Natalie Nicholson, who is competing in the Games for the first time as the lead on the U.S. women's team.

"It's very exciting here," Nicholson said, noting that arriving in Vancouver, getting credentials and donning USA uniforms made it all feel that much more real.

"It feels good to be in our Olympic uniforms," she said.

For the third straight Winter Olympics, Bemidji curling fans will be following local athletes. In 2002, the U.S. women's team included sisters Kari Erickson and Stacey Liapis. In 2006, the women's team included sisters Cassie and Jamie Johnson and the bronze medal winning men's team included Pete Fenson, Joe Polo and alternate Scott Baird. It was coached by Bob Fenson.

Dream fulfilled

Nicholson clinched her Olympic dream Feb. 28 when the Debbie McCormick rink won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Broomfield, Colo. It was the third win for McCormick, who curled in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics, and the first for Nicholson, who joined the team in the 2005-06 season.

McCormick is from Rio, Wis. Also on the team are second Nicole Joraanstad of Madison, Wis., and vice skip Allison Pottinger of Eden Prairie, Minn. Tracy Sachtjen is the team's alternate.

The Olympic village in Vancouver is like "home away from home," albeit a very different home. The team settled in the village Sunday.

"That was amazing," Nicholson said. "It's really beautiful, very organized and clean. There's oodles of staff and volunteers helping and welcoming you. They're very accommodating.

"It always puts you in a good mood -- it's like home away from home."

The team members like to settle in, Nicholson said, noting that they brought familiar items like pillows, extra blankets and flowers to give their surroundings personal touches.

"Each person brought things from home," she said, including cards they received and posters drawn by school children.

"We hung those up in our living room, with a bunch of flags."

The cafeteria at the team village is open at all times. The village has recreational activities such as a pool table, big-screen television and Wii games, along with fire pits and Internet access. Live bands perform sometimes in the evenings, and during the day, Nicholson has seen a stage with a disc jockey playing music.

"It's been nice and relaxing, nothing rushed," Nicholson said. "We work out, hit the ice, eat, relax."

The team started practicing Monday at a nearby curling club to which they commute in rented vans.

"We kind of got our sea legs out from under us," Nicholson said. "We threw lots of rocks and got loosened up. (Tuesday), we threw some specific shots and worked on fine-tuning things."

The team has new brooms for the Olympics, having worked with a designer to come up with their own design. "It's really cool," she said.

Toddler at home

Nicholson's husband, John, and her parents, Bruce and Millicent Simenson of Bemidji, will join her on Sunday, but 17-month-old daughter Stella will stay home with John's parents.

"They do a great job," Nicholson said. "She's going to love being with her grandparents."

Nicholson, a nurse practitioner at North Country Regional Hospital, will miss Stella, but she said her daughter will be better off at home keeping to her schedule.

"She's a great baby. Our family is very involved with her."

The longest Nicholson has been away from Stella is two weeks, when the team was in Europe last month. "We travel a lot," she said

"It's hard to be away from her, but not that my husband is coming, and family and friends are coming, that will make it good," Nicholson said, adding that she spent a lot of quality time with Stella before she left, and now talks to her daughter every day via webcam. "It doesn't make it any easier. ... I'm totally going to miss her."

Tuesday opener

The team will practice and work out until the opening ceremonies tonight, and will have two days of practice on the Olympic curling ice before round robin competition begins Tuesday. The women's semifinals are Feb. 25 with bronze and gold medal games on Feb. 26.

The McCormick rink will continue to do what works best for the team during the Vancouver Olympics.

"Just focus on ourselves and focus on the process of what we do best," Nicholson said. "That's really what it comes down to, just concentrating our yourself."