The Vancouver Olympic Centre is packed with more than 5,000 fans, and USA curling skip, John Shuster, prepares to throw the hammer. He gazes intently across the sheet, lining up his shot. He glides and releases the stone just before the hog line, shouting “Whoa,” to the sweepers as the rock careens gracefully across the ice.
Bam! Team USA’s rock knocks Denmark’s right out of the house, in a classic example of a takeout.
“USA! USA! USA!” the crow cheers as the U.S. posts two points in the third end.
His teammate, John Benton, prepares to throw the first stone of the next end, serenely gliding across the ice like a crouching tiger. He shoots the roaring rock down the sheet, as the second and third furiously sweep the path in front of it.
Shuster screams “Hard! Hard!” loud enough for the entire stadium to hear.
“Whoa,” he calls as the stone nears the center of the house.
The rock lands in the 8-foot ring and the crowd gives a hearty round of applause.
You might be thinking, “Huh?”
Curling is possibly the least-known winter Olympic sport in the U.S. To most Americans, it’s simply mystifying. The sport has its own lingo worthy of Merriam-Webster, with colorful terms like Kizzle Kazzle and Wicky Wacky Woo. But every four years, curling enters the national imagination through Olympic play. Also known as the “Roaring Game” for the sound the stone makes as it slides across the ice, curling slowly has gained momentum in the U.S. thanks to growing USA Curling Olympic coverage. Now that the Olympics are over, the curling community is ready to welcome curious newcomers and capitalize on the sports’ growing exposure.
“It’s always a great opportunity when we can promote curling and the sport that we love,” said Natalie Nicholson, the U.S. women’s lead. “Oftentimes it’s portrayed in a silly way, fun way. But really when people try it they can appreciate it a lot more because it’s so difficult and challenging.”
Jeff Isaacson, the men’s second, agreed. He said there was a substantial increase in interest after the 2006 Olympics, and he anticipates more after the Vancouver games.
“It’s interesting,” said Isaacson. “People who don’t know it will turn on the tube and sit and watch for hours. There’s a lot more to it than people see.”
Curling originated in Scotland in the 1500s, when farmers played on frozen marshes. Scottish immigrants brought the game to Canada in 1759 and then to the U.S. and New Zealand in the 1800s. It became an official Olympic sport in 1998.
Today, the World Curling Federation has 45 member countries with 1.5 people playing the around the globe. A whopping 1.2 million of them are in Canada, which has become the sport’s spiritual home. Since 1998, Canada has won eight Olympic curling medals, including men’s gold and women’s silver in Vancouver.
The U.S. men won bronze in 2006, but USA Curling teams had a tough run at the Vancouver games. Both the men and women finished tenth of 10 teams with identical 2-7 records.
“We’re in last place—so awful, but we had a good season,” said Debbie McCormick, the women’s skip. “We did everything that our coaches asked of us. We’ve been getting stronger, working on our mental toughness and strategy—everything honestly that we needed to do to be successful here.”
So how is the game played? Teams of four players each face off on a long, rectangular sheet of ice (16 feet 5 inches wide by 150 feet long) with a scoring area at each end. The scoring area—a target that looks like a bull’s-eye—is called the house. There are 10 ends, or innings, and play swaps between the two houses.
Teams alternate throwing rocks, or 42-pound granite stones with handles attached, from the far side of the sheet toward the house. Each team member throws two rocks, until both teams have thrown eight rocks.
Once a rock is thrown, two sweepers guide the rock toward the center of the house using a brush, or broom, while the skip, a verbal quarterback of sorts, shouts directions to the curlers.
Sweeping allows the rock to travel farther and straighter by slightly melting the ice, which reduces the friction between the ice and stone. A good sweeper can add 10 feet to a stone’s path. Thus, part of the game’s strategy is knowing when to sweep and when to let the stone curl, or curve.
There are three main types of shots—the guard to guard the house, the draw to get a rock into the house, and the takeout to knock other teams’ rocks out of play.
Only one team can score per end—the team with the stone closest to the tee, or the very center of the house. One point is scored for each stone a team places closer to the tee than their opponent’s closest stone. The team that scores shoots first in the next end, which gives the opponent the hammer, or the key last shot of the end.
The skip, or captain, directs the game, deciding what types of shots to play, calling the sweeping once a shot is thrown—hard tells the players to sweep and whoa lets them know to hold off—and throwing the last two rocks. Among the other positions, the lead shoots first, then the second, and then the vice skip.
“You can win a game or lose a game depending on if you make your last shots,” said McCormick, who is the most accomplished curler in U.S. history. Born in Canada and raised in Wisconsin, she’s a three-time Olympian and 2003 World Champion. “I enjoy that pressure; I love the butterflies. Most of all I love making the last shot to win the game.”
Of course, that’s only the very basic idea. When you get down to the nitty gritty, curling is a complex game with chess-like plotting and a language entirely of its own. The glossary handed out to the press at the Vancouver games included more than 120 of the most basic curling terms. In actuality, there are more than 200.
Watching curling is both mesmerizing and fun. My seat in the press tribune at the Olympics was right behind the house, a perfect spot to watch the U.S. match. I found myself thoroughly entranced by the beauty and complexity of the game, and the fervor of the crowd.
In Olympic play, four sheets play at the same time, with cheers for various games erupting throughout the match. During the mid-game break after the fifth end, the crowd erupted into a version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with curling terms subbed in.
Having the tournament in Canada, where curling is a letter sport in high school and enjoys college play on par with the NCAA, certainly helps.
“Playing in Canada is exciting for any team in the world because the fans and spectators all know the game, know the strategy,” said the women’s head coach Wally Henry, who is McCormick’s father.
In the U.S., the sport is still largely seen as an oddity. Awareness and interest in USA Curling are growing, however. There are more than 140 curling clubs in 35 states with 16,000 members among them. Midwest states including Wisconsin and Minnesota boast the most clubs, with a smattering across the other northern states. But curling clubs are cropping up off the snowy grid in unlikely locales. The Dallas/Fort Worth Curling Club; the Coyotes Curling Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.; the Hollywood Curling in Los Angeles; the Triangle Curling Club in Raleigh, N.C.; and the Magnolia Curling Club in Jackson, Miss., are just a few.
And it’s no wonder the sport is catching on. One of the most accessible things about curling is that anyone, just about anywhere, can play. Olympic curlers hold down “real” jobs in the off-season. Allison Pottinger is a marketing research analyst, Natalie Nicholson is a nurse practitioner, John Shuster is a bartender and Jeff Isaacson is a substitute teacher. Even the men’s head coach, Phill Drobnick, has another job: He’s a probation officer in St. Louis County, Minn.
Being a part of a curling club isn’t unlike belonging to a bowling league. Club play is often coed, and like golf—its more famous Scottish sibling—curling is a lifetime sport. Players can continue at an elite level throughout adulthood. Indeed, the two oldest members of the entire U.S. Olympic team were curlers—John Benton, 40, and Tracy Sachtjen, 41. And “stacking the brooms,” or socializing with teammates and opponents after the game is de rigueur.
“It’s the people,” Shuster said. “When all is said and done, I enjoy being around the people in our club. It’s a great breed of people. It’s a fun sport.”
Naturally, U.S. curlers are thrilled to see the sport finally getting some traction.
“As curlers, we’re very welcoming, and we’re very proud of our sport,” Shuster said. “We’re very good at introducing it to people and giving them a chance to fall in love with it like we did.”
When curling officially became an Olympic sport in 1998, Rick Patzke was the communications officer for Team USA. He showed up at the games in Nagano, Japan, with a press kit full of information that no one knew what to do with.
Twelve years later, Patzke is the chief executive officer of USA Curling, the national governing body for the sport.
“We’re getting all these phone calls in our office about ‘Where do we try this?’ or ‘How do we get clubs going?’” Patzke said.
Curling was one of the most popular events in Vancouver with more than 5,000 people attending each event. It was the only sport to see an increase in television ratings from the 2002 games to 2006. And in February 2006, the U.S. Curling Association website received more than 100 million verifiable hits.
“I think that we’re all very aware that this is curling’s moment to get exposure,” said Allison Pottinger, the U.S. women’s vice skip. “Kind of a moment to shine.”
In response to interest after the Vancouver Olympics, USA Curling will be importing more than 28 curling sets from Scotland.
“Half of which are already spoken for,” Patzke said.
But starting a curling club from scratch can be tough.
“For a new club to get started it costs a lot,” Patzke said. Between facility expenses and purchasing curling sets, the price adds up.
Curling sets, which weigh nearly half a ton, cost about $7,000, thanks to the fact that rocks are quarried from a single source of granite on Scotland’s Ailsa Craig.
“So we have a program for clubs to purchase rocks over five years,” Patzke said.
No doubt, clubs will continue to spring up around the country, and maybe one day, the U.S. will give Canada a run for its money, not just in hockey, but in curling, too.
This post first appeared in The Washington Times Communities on March 1, 2010.