LEAVE IT TO A COUNTRY that dreamed up such wacky sports as caber tossing (chucking 18-foot-tall pieces of timber across the lawn) and hammer throwing (chucking 16-pound steel balls across the lawn) to conceive of a sport like curling. Yes, thanks to Scotland, grown men and women worldwide now embrace a sport that requires them to send a 42-pound puck known as a “stone” skidding across the ice with little more than a broom to guide its path. But while the Scots are notorious oddballs who enjoy delicacies like haggis and blood pudding, explaining how the sport has captured the hearts of thousands of baseball-loving and apple-pie-eating Americans is a bit more challenging.
Until the 1990s, curling was played mainly in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin (plenty of cold weather and not a lot of anything else to do). But, perhaps inspired by its ugly-duckling charm, Americans flocked to the sport after its prime-time TV debut in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games. “Curling clubs were overwhelmed with calls before the Olympics had even ended,” says Terry Kolesar, communications manager for the Wisconsin-based United States Curling Association. Kolesar now counts more than 13,000 registered American curlers, nearly 20 percent of whom joined in the last five years. Clubs have even sprouted up as far south as Texas and Arizona.
Today, more than 1.5 million people in 46 countries have picked up their brooms and hit the ice. Just north of the border in Canada (where curling will once again appear in Vancouver, British Columbia’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games), the sport has become a national obsession, ranking second only to hockey in popularity.
Maybe that’s because one doesn’t need the physique of a hockey player—or the skates, for that matter—to tackle curling. One should, however, come prepared to do more than just stand around sweeping a broom, according to Doug Schaak, founder of Portland’s Evergreen Curling Club, which meets twice weekly for league games at the Lloyd Center. Schaak, a Multnomah Bible College English professor, grew up playing the sport in North Dakota, where his father curled competitively. Today he fields teams for competitions in eight tournaments—bonspiels, in curling parlance—against other clubs throughout the Pacific Northwest each year.
“You’re actually sweating a lot out there,” says Schaak. “It’s far more physically demanding than it looks; you’re always moving when you’re on the ice.”
In fact, the constant sweeping motion works the pecs and triceps, and many first-timers are surprised that such a seemingly simplistic sport could also require flexibility, balance and endurance. In order to skillfully slide those stones, curlers must be able to glide along on the ice for 30 feet or more while maintaining a quad-burning deep knee bend. “You’re just constantly flexing those big thigh muscles,” says Schaak. League matches, which consist of eight “ends”—similar to innings in baseball—can last up to two hours, and players wind up shuffling, sweeping and lunging their way back and forth across the length of the Lloyd Center’s 175-foot-long rink several times over the course of a night.
While all the frantic sweeping—done as close to the stone as possible without actually touching it—looks a bit ridiculous, the aggressive back-and-forth motion briefly melts the ice surface and reduces friction between stone and ice. As a result, the big stones travel farther and straighter. Less sweeping lets the stones curve or “curl” (hence the name)—a must for finessing certain shots. “You have to read the ice just like a green in golf,” says Kolesar.
Teams rack up points by sliding their stones closest to the middle of a 12-foot circular target known as “the house.” Scoring is similar to shuffleboard in that only the team that lands its stones closest to the center of the house (also called the “button”) scores any points.
A typical team consists of four curlers, each of whom will take turns sliding (also called throwing) two stones towards the house during each end. An end is completed once each team has thrown eight stones. Teams also designate one member to be the “skip” (short for “skipper”). Positioned at the far end of the ice, near the house, the skip determines the team’s tactics by shouting to teammates, pointing with a broom to tell the thrower where to aim and informing the sweepers how much force to apply with their brooms in order to land the best shot.
While some beginners find they can quickly master the act of aiming their stones near the bull’s-eye, Schaak says the tricky part is properly positioning enough of the big rocks to block those well-placed stones from the opposing players, who inevitably try to knock a rival team’s stones out of the way.
“The strategy is endlessly complex,” explains Schaak. “It’s been called ‘chess on ice’ by many people. You have to get the pieces to just the right spot on the ice, and you have to get them there while standing on ice yourself.”
But even if you’re not exactly Bobby Fischer your first time out, keep smiling. In another one of the convivial sport’s peculiar aspects, it’s considered sportsmanlike for the winners of each match to treat the losers to a round of celebratory ale—the Scottish kind, of course.
THE CURLING KIT
A novice’s guide to the equipment you’ll need to slide across the ice:
THE STONE TO OWN
The vast majority of stones used today are cut from Eifl Mountain in Northwest Wales or the 104-acre island of Ailsa Craig off Scotland’s southwest coast. Three times as strong as North American granite and much more dense, the rock quarried from these locales resists absorbing moisture from the ice’s surface (which can refreeze inside the rock, weakening the stone) and can endure up to 60 years of play.
Curling brooms have evolved from old-fashioned corn straw-brooms to high-tech gadgets with features like ergonomic S-curved handles fashioned from lightweight carbon fiber or graphite. Outfitted with either coarse strands of horsehair, hog’s-hair or synthetic fiber wraps that resemble a mop head, these modern brooms, when swept in front of a stone, help rocks travel about 15 feet farther.
GET YOUR KICKS
Packed with insulation such as Thinsulate, curling shoes not only keep your feet cozy on the 20-degree ice, but also lend much-needed stability with rubberized non-slip soles. Many varieties also feature one “sliding” sole made of materials like Teflon or even stainless steel, which allow curlers to glide across the ice when throwing their stones.