McLean has been fascinated by curling since age 5 and said he even went to college to study psychology because of the sport. He and partner Alex Carlson will compete in mixed doubles in the U.S. Olympic trials in November with the goal of making the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.
When Derrick McLean was 5, he and his older brother watched the 1998 Winter Olympics and began to act out one of the sports they saw.
McLean and his brother, Ian, started curling in the hallway, improvising by using wads of paper as rocks, a plastic golf club as a broom and masking tape to mark the circular target area. Copying the Olympians they had seen on TV, one brother would yell, “Hard, hard,” to encourage the other to sweep harder with the golf club that wasn’t actually affecting the paper’s movement.
Nobody in McLean’s family had ever participated in curling, a sport that originated in Scotland. But McLean’s father, Scott, knew of a local club — Granite Curling Club, where McLean still trains — because he had played the bagpipes at an event there.
“The kids got on the ice and it was ducks to water,” Scott McLean said. “In fact, they cried when we pulled them off after an hour because we had places to go.”
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The sport, the one he saw on TV and thought was the “coolest, craziest thing,” has influenced nearly every aspect of McLean’s life since. Curling devoured much of McLean’s time throughout his childhood. It sparked his interest in psychology, which he now studies in graduate school as he works toward a PhD. The sport is why he moved back to Bothell, his hometown, last year, so he could train for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
“Really this whole time, through education, through moving up here, everything I’ve done has been because of curling,” McLean said.
McLean qualified for the Olympic trials after placing third at nationals in Blaine, Minn., in March. To compete in South Korea, he and his mixed doubles partner, Alex Carlson, would need to win trials in November in Omaha, Neb.
The 2018 Games will be the first time mixed doubles, which features curling duos made up of a man and a woman, is an Olympic event. That discipline offered a straightforward qualifying path to the Olympics, so McLean decided to pursue the opportunity after a six-year break from serious training. He moved back to Bothell last year and is finishing his doctoral work remotely.
While McLean was an undergrad at Seattle University and then in Southern California at Claremont Graduate University, he focused on academics with little on-the-ice practice. During short breaks from school, McLean would train as much as he could to prove to himself it was possible to return to a high level quickly. Then, he’d go back to school.
“Six years of that — of just waiting, knowing that I wanted to make my shot once it became available,” McLean said.
As a teenager, McLean began reading sports psychology books, searching for ways to quickly learn the skills older curlers had acquired.
McLean has studied his sport in nearly every way: What components, such as trajectory, speed and technique, make a shot successful? How should curlers manage their emotions after a miss? Will a crowd affect his performance?
“The whole reason I went into psychology is because of curling,” McLean said. “All of it is coming down to a mental edge or some sort of competitive edge.”
The dissertation he’s working on is about excellence and finding a single definition for the word. He says it’s “the process of overcoming the highest achievable standard.” McLean’s master’s thesis was about the development of passion. He tested his study with curling, before switching over to other sports he could objectively use in the final product.
“Those are his two big interests — methodological ones and ones that all have to do with what are we passionate about,” said Jeanne Nakamura, who is one of McLean’s research advisers and his academic adviser. “How do we engage it fully? How do we become as good at it as we can? Those are all pretty closely connected to his identity as a curler.”
On the ice, Carlson said McLean can be loud and is easily excitable.
“I mean, I love the game,” he said.
By the time McLean was 8, he started to spend long days curling. He would lose track of time and come in and out of the realization that other people were in the room.
“It’s nothing and everything at the same time,” McLean said. “You’re not feeling emotional. It’s an extreme calmness about what’s going on because you know everything that you’re doing is directed to the one outcome that you want.”
Over a decade later, McLean was finally able to put a word with that sensation: flow. It’s a state characterized by being fully engaged and deeply immersed in an activity.
McLean dissects his sport in every way, all part of his commitment to get better. Those moments of flow, which feel like nothing exists apart from himself and curling, are ones he said are hard to explain.
“There is that analytical side,” Scott McLean said, “but there’s a sense of sheer passion, just love and fulfillment.”