Fenson, who turns 38 this month, has been an operator since 1996, when he acquired his original restaurant, Dave's Pizza. It's located in Bemidji, MN, a town about 60 miles from the Canadian border that's famous as the mythical home of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his Blue Ox. Bemidji is also the closest town to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and it supplies a startling number of U.S. Olympic curlers. Fenson grew up there in a family whose father was once a national curling champ. In Bemidji, high school kids can take curling for phys. ed.
How'd he get in the restaurant business? "I bought Dave's in 1996," Fenson says. "Growing up in Bemidji, I knew the history. I bought it because it was a successful business, and I didn't want to change anything." That means pizza dough made in-house, freshly sliced toppings on every pie and Fenson's daily presence in the restaurant. It helps that the place is located just a short walk from the Bemidji Curling Club headquarters. BCC has so many national championship banners hanging from its ceiling--25--that it recently had to rehang them in a new pattern. People complained that all the banners were blocking their view of the facility's signs.
Fenson's restaurant business was good enough that he opened a second Dave's Pizza in 2004. This one was located in Brainerd, MN, a lake resort area closer to the Twin Cities. That's right, this guy had the pressure of opening a second restaurant in another town while he was simultaneously trying to qualify for the Olympic team.
"We started working on it because the opportunity came up, even knowing it would happen during the Olympic qualifying season. My wife and I didn't think we should miss the opportunity. We didn't see our team as a slam dunk to make the Olympics."
Fenson started working on his second restaurant in the summer of 2004 but, like most openings, it took awhile.
"In early January, 2005, I was competing in the first round of qualifying in Mankato, MN, on a Thursday, with the restaurant set to open Monday. Trying to get everything in place, I was on the phone between games with suppliers, my store manager, my wife, everybody. My mind was in two places. I told my teammates to bear with me. My performance wasn't exactly outstanding, but we wound up advancing to the Olympic Trials round."
Now he's representing the U.S. in the Olympics.
Curling matches involve two teams of four players, who take turns tossing 42-pound granite stones down a narrow, 146-foot-long sheet of ice. The object is to place one of your team's stones closest to the center of a circular target (known as the house) located about 90 feet down--ice. Ideally, you'll bump your competitor's stones out of the way in the process. The sport's hallmark is the furious broom-sweeping performed by the stone-thrower's teammates as each stone slides down the ice-a process which amplifies the stone's speed and also keeps it on line. Strategy is key, making curling a little like playing chess with 42-pound pieces while your feet get cold. Winning requires foresight, tactical knowledge and athleticism on the part of the competitors
Fenson's position as skip means that he slides his stone last. As he goes, so goes the U.S. team.
The U.S. Men's curling team begins pool play in Torino on Monday, Feb. 13. Their match against curling powerhouse Canada is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 20.