Part-time nurse and full-time Olympic curler, Nina Roth hopes to help the U.S. win its first Olympic medal

Rich Harmer for USA Curling

Nina Roth, captain of the U.S. team in Pyeongchang, qualified to the Games as part of one of the craziest trials matches in history.

After nearly a full week of 12-hour shifts juggling hospital charts, IVs and blood samples, the Olympics can seem impossibly far away.

But Nina Roth, 29-year-old registered nurse and skip (aka captain) of the U.S. curling team, has walked the tightrope between caring for patients and competing at her sport's highest level all the way to South Korea.

"I had this dream," Roth said simply. "So I did it."

That dedication paid off in November at the U.S. Olympic trials, where Roth's team defeated two other challengers to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games. But she had to navigate just about the craziest championship match in curling history to get there.

At the trials, Team Roth held a 5-4 advantage over rival Jamie Sinclair in the winner-takes-all final game. In the ninth of 10 ends (akin to baseball innings), Roth readied herself for her last shot, knowing that a successful one could all but punch her ticket to Pyeongchang. Instead, she released her stone a split-second too late, committing what's called a "hog line" violation -- and disqualifying her shot.

Curling -- a mad scientist's concoction of shuffleboard, bocce and chess (but on ice!) that originated in 16th century Scotland -- can be an unforgiving game. Dreams are often made or dashed by the slightest millimeter. But Nina Roth "hogging" her last shot of the ninth end seemed an especially cruel twist. Imagine a professional bowler ruining her 300 game by stepping over the foul line.

"I was pretty heartbroken at first," she said. "My teammates came right to me and huddled around. I was silent for a while, still in shock at what had just happened."

All week at trials, Roth and her teammates -- Tabitha Peterson, Aileen Geving, and Becca Hamilton -- had stayed loose by singing along to music at the arena and cracking jokes in between ends. That camaraderie served them well in the moments after Roth's error.

Huddled around their disconsolate skip, her three teammates took turns encouraging Roth. "We were all obviously shocked," Peterson said, "but you have to remind yourself that the game's not over."

"We left that meeting with as much positivity as we had all week," Roth added.

In the 10th end, Peterson's perfectly executed runback shot swung the momentum back to Team Roth. When Sinclair's last-ditch freeze attempt sailed long, it was all over. Team Roth won 7-6 and clinched Olympic qualification.

It's this resilience that makes them medal contenders in Pyeongchang. Even though this will be the first Olympic experience for Roth & Co., she has learned a lot from two previous world championship appearances. "Hopefully we'll be able to tune out all the extra excitement and just focus on getting the job done," Roth said.

Roth has worked too hard to accept anything less. Most days, she's up by 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in a morning workout before clocking in at Select Specialty Hospital. There, the Wisconsin native typically cares for long-term patients recovering from critical injuries.

Mark Felix for The Washington Post/Getty Images

Nina Roth took up curling at age 10, and has dreamed of the Olympics since the start.

"My coworkers and supervisors are awesome," she said, "and so supportive of what I've been doing these last few years."

What Roth has been doing is pretty amazing -- regularly condensing two weeks of work into one, which allows her to travel with her curling team to events around the world in her time off. But chasing her Olympic dream doesn't leave the self-described "movie nerd" much time to spend with her husband and two cats.

In the run-up to trials, Roth stepped back to part-time nursing to make that final push for qualification. "It's given me more time to get on the ice during the day," she said, "rather than at night after I've worked a full 12-hour day and feel wiped."

Roth took to the sport as a 10-year-old when her Girl Scout troop visited the local curling club. "I just fell in love with it," Roth said. "I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be an Olympian and I dedicated a lot of my time to get there."

At first, she tried anything -- including mimicking her curling idol, Colleen Jones -- if it meant on-ice success. "[Jones] used to wear a kilt all the time, so I tried wearing one for a while," she laughed. "It didn't work."

"She also used to chomp her gum really hard. There was a time in junior curling where I thought chomping gum like Colleen Jones would help me with my game."

Roth won't be chomping gum or sporting a kilt in Pyeongchang, but she hopes to similarly inspire the next generation of American curlers. And she still has one more goal ahead of her: winning the USA's first-ever Olympic medal in women's curling.

"I think that would be so cool," she said. "Not only for us, but for U.S. women's curling in general. It would prove how hard we've worked the last four years."

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