Curler Charlie Thompson of Eau Claire is one of six Wisconsin athletes on Team USA at the Youth Olympic Games that begin this week in Switzerland. (Photo by Jeff Thompson)
Curler Charlie Thompson of Eau Claire is one of six Wisconsin athletes on Team USA at the Youth Olympic Games that begin this week in Switzerland. (Photo by Jeff Thompson)

Team USA’s 96 members include half a dozen Badger State athletes

Almost 2,000 young athletes will begin competing in Switzerland this week, including at least one Junior Olympian from Wisconsin who would not be there had he let his doubts carry the day.

A year ago Charlie Thompson was considering giving up his favorite sport, having missed key shots at a national qualifier youth curling tournament and feeling the strain of trying to balance the sport’s demanding travel schedule with school.  

Landon Lee, a 17-year-old Eau Claire North High School junior, qualified for the Youth Olympic Games in Switzerland. (Photo by Ben Pieper)

But Thompson, a 17-year-old junior at Eau Claire Memorial High School, decided instead to give competitive curling another try. He subsequently formed a seemingly unlikely team comprised of himself and three others who hadn’t curled together before. 

“It was like, ‘I’ve seen you play before. Do you want to be part of a team?’ ” Thompson recalled of his asking others to be on the team. In fact, he had only met one of his teammates “for about five minutes before they agreed to play,” he said.

Thompson said he and his teammates — Ethan Hebert, Kaitlin Murphy and Alina Tschumakow — were expected to finish “maybe third or fourth” at the Youth Olympic trials last October in Denver, Colo. Instead, the team of newcomers who were considered underdogs of sorts won the event and will represent the U.S. at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“You wouldn’t have picked us to win,” Thompson said. “It felt really gratifying to do as well as we did.”

Thompson and his curling teammates will compete against teams from 23 other countries at the Youth Olympic Games, which begin Thursday and run through Jan. 22. 

Thompson is one of six Wisconsin members of Team USA, but he isn’t the only participant from Eau Claire. Landon Lee, a 17-year-old junior at North High School, qualified for the games as a ski jumper after placing second at the qualifying competition in Steamboat Springs, Colo. 

Lee, who began ski jumping at age 6, said he is elated at the chance to take part in the Youth Olympic Games. He follows in the successful footsteps of other Eau Claire ski jumpers, Ben Loomis and Emily Anderson, who participated in the games in 2016 and 2012, respectively. 

“I never thought I would reach this level,” Lee said. “I worked really hard and now I have this great opportunity.”

Lee and Thompson are among the 96 teammates who make up the U.S. team. Other Wisconsin members include Isaac Howard, ice hockey, Hudson; Jordan Stolz, long track speedskating, Kewaskum; Jonathan Toban, long track speedskating, Milwaukee; and Courtney Rummel, snowboarding, West Bend.  

Nearly 1,900 athletes from more than 70 nations will participate in the Youth Olympic Games. 

Thompson and Lee credit their athletic success to hard work and the support of their families and local clubs. Lee began ski jumping after attending an event put on by the Flying Eagles Ski Club intended to introduce youngsters to the sport. He learned to appreciate the details of ski jumping, bending his body just so, positioning it to be as aerodynamic as possible. He especially enjoys the unbridled joy of soaring through the air. 

“I love that feeling when you reach speed and then you take off and are flying as far as you can,” Lee said.

Thompson, meanwhile, grew up around curling, accompanying his dad, Jeff, to the Eau Claire Curling Club starting when he was just 3 years old. Jeff had discovered curling relatively late in life when his father-in-law, Eau Claire resident Lon Piper, asked him to join a team. 

“I asked (Piper) what curling was, and he told me it’s this game where you talk with people and drink beer and push something on the ice,” Jeff recalled. 

By age 9 Thompson had progressed past the youth curling league and was playing the sport with his dad and other grown men. At age 12 he started curling competitively, traveling to tournaments to test his skills against other top youth curlers. He has taken part in multiple U18 national championships and was part of a team that placed first, when he was 15.

As Thompson improved, he became more enamored with curling. He once saw the sport as his professional future, but more recently he has decided to pursue other options. He plans to go to college and realizes he will need to focus on his grades to get into the schools he wants most to attend.

“As I looked at what I want to do with the rest of my life, I realized that didn’t involve curling at a high level,” Thompson said.

Lee acknowledged that balancing school and competitive ski jumping can be difficult. He trains twice daily and competitions sometimes cause him to miss significant classroom time, he said. Still, Lee remains focused on improving and dreams of one day taking part in the Olympic games. 

“This is the biggest competition I’ve ever jumped in,” he said of the Youth Olympic Games. “You’ve got to stay relaxed and know that you belong.”

Thompson said the Youth Olympic Games likely will be his last competitive curling event. However, before he focuses more intently on his studies, Thompson has one more curling date on his schedule, the biggest of his career. 

Eau Claire residents and others in Wisconsin and across the U.S. will follow Thompson and his team. Thompson’s family will be in Switzerland watching live. 

“They’re a huge support for me,” Thompson said of his family. “This is an amazing opportunity, and I’m so excited just to be a part of it.”