Birt back in form after two-year break (Scotties HeartChart)

(by John Korobanik) There are not a lot of sports where elite-level athletes can step away from the game for two years then return and enjoy the same level of success as before they took a break. Suzanne Birt is proving that’s not the case with curling. The 37-year-old from Summerside, P.E.I., left the game following the 2015-16 season after she took her P.E.I. team to a ninth Scotties Tournament of Hearts appearance.

Team PEI, skip Suzanne Birt, third Marie Christianson, second Meaghan Hughes, lead Michelle McQuaid, Mitch O’Shea (coach) – not shown. 

The former world junior champion returned from her two-year hiatus this season with a new team, but familiar teammates — third Marie Christianson and second Meaghan Hughes, who she played with in 2015-16 and lead Michelle McQuaid, who was on her team in 2014-15 — to again win the provincial title and earn her 10th trip to the Scotties. Obviously, she agrees, the break didn’t hurt her game. “It was a nice break,” she says. “I had another baby. She’s almost 11 months old, Jo.” She also has a second daughter, Jesse, who is 9.

Birt is finding this season more enjoyable from previous years because the break put life back into proper perspective, which has led to a new attitude and less pressure on the ice. “Maybe it’s because I had another baby, or whatever. I don’t know.” she says. “I had a nice mental break from everything and just coming back refreshed. I think I’m more relaxed about everything. But it’s been really different, a much more relaxed atmosphere.” 

And, she notes, definitely far less pressure during games. With the new attitude and reworked team has come some success this winter. They won the WFG Jim Sullivan Curling Classic and made the playoffs in four of the five events they played on the World Curling Tour this season. “We’ve been having a lot of success this season and we’re just loving every time we get out together, on and off the ice,” says Birt, who won $500,000 on the Atlantic Lottery in 2015. “It’s really been fun.”

Birt got together with Hughes and McQuaid, who were on Robyn MacPhee’s team that won the provincials the last two years, and Christianson last summer and decided to form this year’s team.
“Actually two of them approached me in the beginning,” Birt explains. “We all just talked at the end of last season. They were all kind of looking for a new fit and we just decided it would be a good idea if we played together.” So now she had another shot at the Scotties tournament that P.E.I. has never won and her team is taking a realistic look at the event.

“We set small goals to begin with,” she says. “We look at (pool and draw) and set some goals for the week. I think we have a really great team and can pull off getting into the championship round and go from there.” Getting to playoffs hasn’t been that easy, however. In her nine previous trips – the first five as Suzanne Gaudet before she married Trevor Birt in 2008 – her team made the playoffs only twice. In her debut in 2003 Birt and her teammates finished atop the standings at 10-1 but lost both playoffs game to finish third.

In 2007, they finished 6-5 but lost the 3-4 playoff game. With this being her 10th trip to the national women’s championship, some might suggest she’s becoming the Brad Gushue of the Scotties. Gushue, from Newfoundland and Labrador, played in 13 Briers before finally winning it in 2017. The difference, of course, is that Gushue was a perennial contender, finishing second or third three times. Birt’s teams have had a losing record in sixth of her previous nine Scotties appearances. Birt just chuckles at the suggestion, but then adds it wouldn’t be a bad thing, given that Gushue eventually did win the Brier. P.E.I has never won the Scotties.

After failing to improve upon her impressive 2003 debut, one might wonder if perhaps success came too easily, too early? “I don’t think so,” Birt says in dispelling that idea. “Since then I’ve changed teams a few times. It’s always been a different look and different success and different failures and roller-coaster rides. Each year is unique every time you go. I don’t think (success came too easy) because every time I went it’s been different, whether with different teammates or different coaches or mindset or having kids or whatever.”

Oh, and that lottery cash? It was obviously a huge help financially but, she says, it didn’t change her life much. “It definitely made things a little easier financially, but it’s not really a life-changing amount of money. But definitely a huge help.”

Click to read this edition of the Scotties HeartChart.

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