I know you only think about curling every four years when the Olympics come around, if then, but I tell you, it's got its hooks in me. Or its brooms.
Curling was an Olympic demonstration sport in 1988 and '92, then became a medal sport in 1998. Those Games were in Japan, though, and with the time difference affecting TV coverage, curling got short shrift. But at the Salt Lake Games it was lovingly covered by NBC and its hench networks, MSNBC and CNBC. And now curling's hot!
Well, maybe not hot, but warming up, if the experience of the St. Paul Curling Club, home to three of the four members of the 2002 men's Olympic team, is any indication. Jim O'Leary, who helps run the place, says that since the Olympics the club has received so many inquiring calls that for the first time it's offering clinics for newcomers. Prospective curlers learn the finer points of the sport and play a short game. I can't get to one of those, so I have O'Leary take me out on the ice and show me how it's done, thus allowing me to fulfill a lifelong fantasy of sliding around on ice with a guy named Jim. But that's another story.
O'Leary is a 63-year-old Duluth native. I ask him about the brooms. I tell him that when I was a kid, curling was inexplicably on TV on weekend mornings despite the fact that I lived in Los Angeles, where the sport has never caught on. The straight brooms and the frantic, hilarious sweeping were what caught my attention. O'Leary tells me those are called corn brooms.
"When I started curling, way back in 1950 when I was a kid, I used a corn broom, and corn brooms back then were, oh, God, like a house broom," he says. "And your hands were just taking an absolutely brutal beating. You curled a lot, and you tried everything to try to keep from getting blisters and callouses."
In the past few decades, the corn broom has been replaced by the push broom, which looks a little like a lightweight kitchen mop. Most are cloth-covered, but some elite players use brushes made of horse- or hog hair. Cloth-covered brooms don't leave as much debris on the ice, O'Leary says. A single hair can cause a sliding rock, or stone as it's also called, to carom wildly to one side. He says the club discourages the brushes.
"It'd be OK if they'd use 'em, but some guys, they buy these brushes and they figure the damn thing's gonna last forever," he says. "Well, it doesn't. You say, 'Let me look at your brush,' and holy jumpin' Judas Priest! You know, what they've gotta do when they get 'em is not only clean it but get a scissors and clip all that stuff off of there so it doesn't fall out."
I know you don't care about any of this. I just wanted you to hear O'Leary say "holy jumpin' Judas Priest!"
In this country, curling is mostly confined to Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, though there are outposts elsewhere. It's nothing like in Canada, where the sport is second only to hockey. While the 90-year-old SPCC is the only curling club in the Twin Cities area, home to 2.8 million people, O'Leary points out that in the Winnipeg, Manitoba, area, with a quarter of the population, there are 21 clubs. A curling comedy, "Men With Brooms," starring Leslie Nielsen among others, has just become Canada's top-grossing domestic English-language movie of the past 20 years. The film doesn't yet have a U.S. distributor.
As O'Leary and I step onto the ice, a group of guys in their 30s are preparing to play a game. They're stretching. Wait a minute. The knock on curling is that the players look like truck drivers and supermarket managers, not athletes. What's with the stretching?
"There's muscles in this game that you don't use normally, so they'll stretch out and everything else before they go out on the ice, and they keep themselves in pretty good shape," O'Leary says, referring to elite players.
Later in the day, I run into Kari Erickson, the skip, or captain, of the U.S. women's Olympic team, at a Minnesota Twins baseball game. I accost her as she's buying a heap of ice cream and whipped cream only slightly smaller than she is.
"I see you're in training," I say. Ha ha. She could so kick my ass.
I ask her about the physical condition curlers need to be in.
"At the elite level, you need to be in very good shape," she says. "A curling game lasts about three hours, and in a weekend we can play up to seven or eight games, so we're playing three games a day possibly. The sweepers, the two front-end players, they go like a mile and a half every game. I mean, they've got to be in very, very good shape because they're going back and forth, running along the ice. It just takes a lot of stamina."
Erickson, who is 30, is considering retirement from elite competition to spend more time with her family, but she says curling is a lifetime game. "You can start out at age 5 and go until you can't walk anymore," she says.
On the ice, O'Leary makes one more point about physical conditioning.
"It's getting better and better and better," he says, "because several years ago -- and still is to a degree -- there's a lot of drinking involved with this sport. You know, the Canadians were famous for it."
In fact, one of curling's charming traditions -- like golf, it's a centuries-old gentleman's game invented in Scotland, so there are quite a few -- is "stacking the sticks," in which the players interrupt a game, stack their brooms in the "house," that target-looking thing they slide the stones toward, and go off somewhere to drink. Needless to say, this doesn't happen at the Olympics.
O'Leary goes over the rules with me. I won't bore you with too many details, but the basic idea is that two teams of four people alternate sliding eight rocks each, two by each player, down the sheet toward the house. The ice is "pebbled" by spraying water on it, giving it a bumpy surface, like goose-pimpled skin. Eight throws by each team is one end, a word that could just as well be "inning."
At the completion of each end, the team with the stone closest to the button, or center of the house, gets one point for each stone it has that's in the house and closer to the button than any of the opponent's stones. If no stones are in the house at the conclusion of the end, no points are scored. The team that scores goes first in the next end, and continues doing so until the other team scores, thus giving the other team the advantageous last rock, known as the "hammer." (A coin flip determines the first to shoot in the first end.) High-level matches are 10 ends. Club matches are usually eight, and take about two hours. There is a huge amount of strategy involved.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I want to throw a stone.
O'Leary goes over the history and makeup of the rocks (Scottish granite, about 42 pounds, they last for about 40 years and cost about $700 each), then explains the purpose of the sweeping. "It makes the rock go further and it keeps it from curling so much, though it's not going to straighten it out." How does this work? "I've heard all kinds of different theories," he says, and spares me them. Suffice to say, physics is going on there.
"With the sweeping, on good keen ice," O'Leary says, "they can probably drag the rock 10 to 15 feet further as opposed to not sweeping, so there's a lot of room to play there." That helps explain how curlers can make the stone come to rest exactly where they want it to, though of course the shooter has to be skilled enough to give the sweepers something to work with.
When the shooter releases the rock, he puts a slight spin on it, which makes it curl, or curve. Spinning it harder doesn't work. It'll go straight, O'Leary says. Generally, the rock might only make one or two revolutions as it goes down the sheet. He says new players usually have more trouble with the counterclockwise spin, spinning it too hard, than with the clockwise, which requires a more natural motion, like bringing your hand up to shake hands.
O'Leary shows me how to get down into a crouch with my right foot tucked under me and against the hack -- a rubber foothold used to push off from -- my left foot flat on the ice and a broom under my left arm, resting on the surface for balance. He demonstrates how to get a rocking motion going, then slide toward the hog line, 33 feet away, and let the rock go -- don't push it, just release it -- before crossing the line.
I give it a try. Like O'Leary, I don't have a Teflon slider on my shoe, so my slide isn't much to look at. Neither is my shot, which I put counterclockwise spin on. I watch as it makes it about halfway down the sheet and bumps into the side board. I'd been so busy keeping my balance through the slide that I paid no attention to my release. But now I figure I have my sea legs, or my ice legs, and I try another, this time with an in, or clockwise, spin.
I push off and move gracefully across the ice, the handle of the stone pointed toward 10 o'clock as O'Leary had taught me, my head up, looking down the sheet. At what, I don't know. I gently spin the rock as I let it go -- I don't push it, I just release it -- and my hand comes up like I'm shaking hands.
"That's a lot better," O'Leary says. "Now if we were sweeping that'd be right in there."
We watch as it makes its slow-motion progress down the sheet, the handle lazily making its way around: noon, 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock, 9 o'clock, noon again. "Well, look at that," O'Leary says as the rock glides across the hog line and, curling dreamily to the right, settles in the house, to the right of center, on the 4-foot circle.
"Not bad!" O'Leary says.
"Easy game," I sniff.
I try about eight more shots, and never get close to the house again.