The curling team with the pants. That’s all you have to say. The imagery is instant: four grown Scandinavian men and their provocative trousers. It’s quite an accomplishment, especially for a niche Olympic sport.
Lesser known are their names. Thomas Ulsrud, Torger Nergård, Christoffer Svae and Håvard Vad Petersson have played together for 12 seasons, and in March the Norway-based team announced they will no longer be curling competitively. Their last competition will be this week at the inaugural Curling World Cup final in Beijing. Their on-ice accomplishments include an Olympic silver medal, a world championship, two European titles, and neckfuls of top-three finishes. (“We would like to thank Team Niklas Edin, Team David Murdoch, Team Kevin Martin, Team Kevin Koe and Team Sven Michel for turning all those 9 potential golds into beautifull [sic] silver medals,” Team Ulsrud wrote.) But they will be known for what they did off the ice, forever shaping the curling identity.
Prior to Team Ulsrud’s colorful display, curling fashion was extremely basic: black pants, black shoes, two-toned shirts. Its gaudiest accessory was probably either the kilt or the curling sweater, which are stellar clothing options but admittedly aren’t competition-friendly.
Entering the 2010 Olympics, Norway curling had already medaled in two of the three Olympic spiels and earned gold in 2002 with a team skipped by Pål Trulsen. Team Ulsrud was coming off back-to-back bronzes at world championships and were medal contenders in Vancouver. Then they received their country-issued uniforms: white shirts, black pants.
Feeling a bit drab, Svae, the team’s second, took initiative and ordered the team a set of those famous red, white and blue argyle pants, matching their flag’s colors. As the story goes, they thought it’d be fun for team morale to practice in them, but didn’t plan on wearing them in actual games until some fellow countrymen goaded them into it. It was, to say the least, the correct decision. At a time when curling was still a fascination, casual fans took notice. Back when Facebook metrics meant something to all of us, the unofficial fan page for The Norwegian Olympic Curling Team’s Pants had over half a million likes in its prime. And Norway’s crew was more than just a spectacle—they won games. They finished the round robin with a 7-2 record, and took a silver medal following a loss to unbeaten Kevin Martin and Team Canada.
They weren’t the first athletes to wear the garish garments in athletic competition—that honor belongs to John Daly the year previous—but they were the first to coordinate them as a team. The pants in question all came from a specific vendor and eventual sponsor: Loudmouth Golf, a California-based retailer. Naturally, sales surged when Team Norway donned them in the Olympics. Since then, according to Loudmouth’s website, their apparel is worn by LGPA golfer Pornaong Phatlum (they make skorts) and Scottish darts player Peter “Snakebite” Wright (which, based on his hair, seems right in his wheelhouse).
Following the 2010 Olympics, Team Ulsrud expanded their wardrobe, snapping up several other outfits for their bonspiels and international championships. Their Olympic appearances in 2014 and 2018 didn’t result in any medals, but they did have a unique pair for each game, including pants with a Norway flag pattern against their Swedish counterparts. (The Norway flag pants were also worn when they took gold at the 2014 world championship.) In 2018, they spread the love with pink hearts for Valentine’s Day.
The wave of pants started to encompass the sport, especially in the rec leagues. Teams wouldn’t necessarily coordinate the costumes (given the pants’ high price point), but the sight of snazzy slacks became a commonplace.
Admittedly, I wasn’t immune to the craze either, picking up a pair for special curling occasions a few years back, specifically the paint splatter ones (worn by Team Kleiter at a Grand Slam this season). They were stretchy and comfy, and on the rare occasion when I wore them into the real world, they served as a useful icebreaker for talking about the sport. I’ve seen others take the ice in festive pajama pants, with all sorts of prints from team logos to Space Jam patterns. We all look like loons, and we love it.
When teams curl outside of an international competition, the team usually takes the skip’s last name, so on the circuit they were officially Team Ulsrud. Colloquially, though, they were just “The Pants.” Their enthusiasm didn’t end at that layer of clothing. In the 2016 Continental Cup (curling’s version of the All-Star Game with a Ryder Cup feel: North America vs. the world), Ulsrud’s team showcased their “no-hands pants dance.”
Team Ulsrud also participated in the Men of Curling calendar, a charity-driven product where 12 different players or teams participate in a photo shoot, with proceeds from the calendar split 12 different ways to charities of the models’ choice. (The women alternate with the men every other year.) If you did not see Team Ulsrud’s Thanksgiving dinner photoshoot from last year, now you have, and you will fail to un-remember it.
Their impact spread throughout the curling community, and other teams turned to fashion statements. They understood the intent of the game is not just to promote themselves, but the sport as well. The pants, the shirts, and the shoes became more colorful. Competitive curlers Colin Hodgson and Emma Miskew formed their own curling apparel startups. Hodgson’s fledgling even landed a licensing deal with Canada’s national championships, the Brier and the Scotties, creating unique designs for each province. Down here in the states, Matt Hamilton made waves with his brightly colored shoes and hanky. If the U.S. has made any contribution, it’s definitely the spiciness of the hats.
And if there was a residual effect on fashion leading to success, consider: Team Shuster opened the 2018 Olympics with white pants, which supposedly helped them relax. After a losing streak, they switched to the grays, which were worn during the entirety of their winning streak.
Some of Team Ulsrud might return to the competitive scene. Ulsrud and Nergård are in their 40s, so they’re probably done. Svae and Petersson are in their 30s and could ostensibly start their own team or join another one, though their options are limited. This season Steffen Walstad, who did not wear colorful pants during competition, skipped the top Norwegian team, which finished 18th worldwide and seems pretty well set.
Once the Curling World Cup’s over, the era of crazy pants will likely go into the closet for a while. But that’s fine. One of the auxiliary goals of any curler is not just to win and win admirably, but to promote the sport and cast its net to a wide audience. Team Ulsrud might have done this better than anyone. For that the entire curling world is grateful, and more colorful, for it.
Matt Sussman is a sort-of-competitive curler from Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter at @suss2hyphens.