When Kirk Muyres decided to shift from men's team curling to mixed doubles, the upcoming Canadian championship was one of the top events circled on his calendar.
Muyres and Laura Walker are striving to qualify for the Olympic trials, and a national title would serve as a key building block in their quest to represent Canada at the 2026 Milan Games.
"It shows you where you're at," Muyres said of this week's competition. "Whether you win or lose, it shows you what you need to do to become better."
The Muyres-Walker pairing is one of the headline duos in the 32-team event starting Tuesday at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex in Sudbury, Ont.
Top-ranked Jocelyn Peterman and Brett Gallant are also in the field along with Rachel Homan and Tyler Tardi, Nancy Martin and Tyrel Griffith, Lisa Weagle and John Epping, and Jennifer Jones and Brent Laing.
Sudbury was slated to host the 2022 playdowns last March, but Curling Canada scrubbed the event due to restrictions and health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like it did for last year's Winter Olympics, the national sport organization declared a team for the 2022 world mixed doubles championship. Canada's entries at both events came up short of the podium.
Homan and John Morris missed the playoffs at the Beijing Games. Peterman and Gallant, who won the Canadian title in 2016 and 2019, had a strong round-robin record at the worlds in Geneva but fell in a qualification game.
Peterman is now 29 weeks pregnant and will take on more of a skipping role this week. Gallant will be tasked with most of the sweeping duties.
"From a physical standpoint, it's a little bit easier to just be in the house and not have to be sweeping all the rocks," she said. "Overall I'm feeling pretty good about how that will go despite how far along I am."
The curling scene is essentially back to normal now in Canada, and there is a more robust mixed doubles calendar with this season's arrival of the new Super Series.
"The quality of play right now is pretty exceptional," said mixed doubles national team coach Scott Pfeifer.
The winning team at the nationals will earn $40,000 and represent Canada at the April 22-29 world mixed doubles curling championship in Gangneung, South Korea.
"Obviously mixed doubles in Canada here has seen a rough stretch with the cancellation of two of our national championships and our mixed doubles Olympic trials," Pfeifer said. "So it's super exciting to see all of these teams get together and compete against each other for the right to go to the world championships.
"I'm sure this increased competition and ability to play against each other will bode well for the next two years as they all try to qualify for the 2026 Winter Olympics."
Brad Gushue and Kerri Einarson won the Canadian mixed doubles playdowns in the Calgary bubble in 2021.
Both skips recently led their four-player teams to national titles. Einarson is in Sweden for the women's world championship, and Gushue is preparing to represent Canada at the men's playdowns starting April 1 in Ottawa.
The mixed doubles field will be split into four pools of eight. It features 13 provincial/territorial champions alongside 19 teams that qualified through the Canadian rankings.
Teams will play a seven-game round-robin within their pools with 12 teams advancing to the single-knockout playoffs starting Saturday. The final is set for Sunday afternoon.
Muyres and Walker won their first competition of the season in late September and have posted four other top-five finishes.
"We've played consistent curling no matter what event we're in," Muyres said. "Consistency is always what we aim for and then hopefully you bring a little extra on that last day."
The duo won the national mixed doubles crown in 2018 and added world bronze later that year.
"This is a huge event for us to go there, play hard and hopefully win it," said Muyres. "If not, (we'll) find some learnings out of it so that if we hopefully get into those Olympic Trials or the Olympics in a few years time.
"We're experienced and we know what to expect when the high pressure ramps up."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press