03/17/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 05/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada's Willms switches gears between race cars and Latvian curling team

SAINT JOHN, N.B. - When Canadian curler Karri Willms is finished coaching Latvia at the women's world curling championship, she'll be under the hood of an Italian race car.

Willms, from Vernon, B.C., won a Canadian women's curling title and world championship silver playing lead for Julie Sutton in 1991. They won a bronze medal in Albertville, France, in 1992 when curling was a still a demonstration sport at the Winter Games.

Willms retired from competitive curling shortly thereafter. A few years ago, she and her husband Renato Lepore took a break from their "real jobs" — Willms worked at a bank and he was a helicopter engineer in Vancouver — to attend Bridgestone Racing Academy near Pontypool, Ont.

She wasn't a "gearhead", so the eight-month course was an eye-opener.

"When I went to the school, I was the only female there too out of 30-some students," Willms says. "I didn't even know what a wrench was."

She quickly learned. Willms, 44, is now a mechanic on the JD Motorsport pit crew in Formula-Renault racing, which is a developmental circuit for Formula One. She and Lepore both work for the racing team.

"I change wheels," Willms says. "They crash, I fix the car, we do the setups.

"The job I do in racing is very physical. I missed the physical part when we were training and working out for curling competitions. I'm getting that now from being a mechanic. You have to be in shape to carry heavy tools and batteries and boosters, and carry and change tires. It's also mentally challenging for me because I had to learn it.

"Because I'm a female, I'm not as strong as the men. I have to adapt the tools."

The couple live in Novara, Italy, near Milan. The racing season runs April to October, which left Willms's winters free to return to curling. She coached the Italian men's team in 2012-13 and then joined the Latvian Curling Federation as a national team coach for this season.

"We're having fun and we haven't gone back to what we call the 'real world,'" Willms says. "Now I get a chance to do two things that I really love and it's nice to do a full circle and come back to curling.

"Coming back to curling, it's calmer and you're using a different part of your brain."

Julie Sutton, third Jodie Sutton, second Melissa Soligo and Willms lost 4-3 in an extra end to Norway's Dordi Nordby in the '91 women's world final in Winnipeg. Willms says she keeps in touch with her former teammates via social media.

Latvia's Evita Regza was 1-2 after the first two days of the Ford Women's World Curling Championship in Saint John. That country hosted a world championship for the first time in 2013 when the women's tournament was held in Riga.

"As Latvia's newer to the sport of curling, it's really great to see them improve each time we go out and play games and take all these little steps," Willms says. "It's really gratifying, I will have to say."