SOCHI, Russia — Allison Pottinger came to the Olympics not expecting to compete. Oh, she’d love to participate, but for that to happen, something must go wrong for the United States women’s curling team.
Pottinger’s official role is team alternate, the fifth member who watches games from a perch above the sheet of ice. The Eden Prairie, Minn., mother of two and market researcher for General Mills accepts the reality that she won’t get to compete in these Games unless one of her four teammates gets sick, injured or is benched for poor performance.
Pottinger hopes none of that happens, though the competitor in her burns to throw the rock in this environment again. Team USA is off to an 0-4 start in this tournament, so a change to Pottinger might be the spark that’s needed.
“It’s the Olympics, how can it not be great, right?” Pottinger said. “The team has been really welcoming. But it’s hard to watch. I’m not a good watcher. It’s always like, ‘Oh, play that … (She tells herself) Zip it, you’re not supposed to say anything.’ So that’s kind of hard.”
Pottinger was a member of the U.S. team that finished 10th in the Vancouver Games in 2010. She formed her own team afterward, but she lost to Erika Brown’s rink in the final of the Olympics Trials with a trip to Sochi at stake.
Her phone rang the next day. Brown offered a spot on her rink as an alternate.
“My whole team was wrecked and devastated that we lost,” Pottinger said. “Then you get this phone call and it’s like, ‘Oh.’ I was very surprised. I didn’t think they would ask me.”
That relationship had the potential to be awkward, her joining a team that just 24 hours earlier had crushed her Olympic dreams. Pottinger talked it over with her husband and her teammates. All gave their blessing.
“All of them were like, you’ve got to do it,” she said. “Just knowing they supported it and were OK with it made a big difference.”
Pottinger is a distinguished curler, having won 10 national titles. She was voted U.S. curling Athlete of the Year in 2008. She’s widely respected inside the curling community, which is why Brown had no reservations about adding a former opponent to her team.
“We all knew her, we knew she has a lot of skill and would fit in easily,” Brown said. “She’s a great teammate. It was really obvious to us. It felt natural to bring her into our circle.”
Pottinger is a native of Canada, born in Ontario and raised in Quebec. Her family moved to Wisconsin after her father, who worked for Kimberly-Clark, accepted a transfer. Pottinger enrolled at Wisconsin-Oshkosh and played third base for the school’s softball team.
“I didn’t even know there was a Wisconsin-Madison,” she said. “We moved so fast. We found out in July and I was in school Sept. 1. Somebody said, ‘We’re playing UW in Madison.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s a whole bunch of UWs?’ I didn’t know.”
Pottinger has worked for General Mills for more than 10 years. Her group studies consumer habits and behavioral data.
“We’re the people that kind of figure out why people like Cheerios,” she said. “How much does price matter, how much does ingredients being all natural matter? How much do people buy it when it’s on sale versus not on sale? So a lot of numbers and trends.”
Her life has become a juggling act now that her two daughters, ages 7 and 5, are involved in activities, including curling. Competing in curling — or any sport — at an Olympic level requires significant practice time and travel demands, which becomes more difficult as her kids get older.
“They understand how long it means now to be gone for three weeks,” Pottinger said.
Her family did not travel to Russia with her. Instead, Pottinger’s husband Doug, who also is an accomplished curler, is taking the girls downhill skiing in Calgary.
“Yes, I’m not winning Mom of the Year this year,” Pottinger said, laughing. “That went out the window fast.”