By Dave Chamberlain
JANUARY 31, 2000: A man takes a deep breath of cold air and surveys the situation: At one end of an ice sheet, a painted bullseye is the resting place for three large granite stones, each smooth and topped with a handle, giving them the look of oversize, bulbous teapots. Two of the stones have red handles, the other has a yellow grip.
He slides himself to the other end of the ice and gathers another yellow-handled stone, sliding it, not lifting it from the ice. Going down on one knee, he steadies his grip on the stone and sets a sneakered foot against a rubber stop built into the ice. Sliding the stone by its handle forward a foot, then back a foot, the man straightens his shoulders, eyes his target and pushes off. Still on one knee and still holding the stone, he glides. Five feet. Ten feet. Still gliding past fifteen feet, he releases the stone and sends it on a slow journey toward the other end of the ice.
The stone moves with almost Zen-like tranquility down the sheet, the handle spinning in a subtle clockwise motion. Slowly. Very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it seems unlikely the stone will reach the target.
But then the man barks a command, and on to the ice come two men holding old-fashioned corn brooms. They start sweeping the ice in front of the stone, taking its slow pace as their own. The stone slides on. The men stop, then sweep again. At last, the stone nears the bullseye. As the two sweepers pull away, the stone moves into the circle and, slowing to a crawl now, grazes a stone with a red handle. The red stone moves with amazing fluidity out of the circle, coming to a stop away from the bullseye, while the just-slid stone creeps to a halt near the center.
"That man," says a bystander, "can curl."
When you think winter sports, it's all too easy to conjure visions of hurtling down the side of a powder-packed mountain or slapping a puck at a well-padded goalie. But for those who don't fancy the risk of snapping a leg in six places at 11,000 feet, who are cold to the idea of taking a puck in the mouth, there is another option: Curling.
Introduced to most Americans during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan its first year as a medal sport--curling is like shuffleboard with brooms instead of cues, on the ice instead of on the deck. While enjoying widespread popularity in Canada--where curling rinks are as common as bowling alleys here--the sport has a distinctively smaller following in the United States, largely limited to the colder states.
In northern Illinois, there are five curling clubs: the oldest, Waltham Curling Club; Glenview Curling Club; Exmoor Curling Club; North Shore Curling Club; and the largest, the Chicago Curling Club, which boasts more than 200 members. The curling season lasts from October to April, kicked off by a weekend tournament--or bonspiel--at the North Shore club. For the past fifty-two years, the Chicago Curling Club has held the Men's Invitational Bonspiel, boasting teams from Illinois, the surrounding states and Canada. This past January 13-16 saw more than twenty teams compete in the fifty-second annual tournament.
"The thing about curling," says Liz Reid, member of the Chicago Curling Club and committee member for the Men's Invitational Bonspiel, "is that it's one of the few sports in which you can completely compete in when you're older. It's cross-generational."
Reid, whose parents started her on the sport twenty-five years ago, curls as many as four times every week during the season, has competed on teams with her parents and two sons and has traveled to Europe to curl. Though the game looks simple, she notes that "there's a lot to it," and that "strategy is sometimes the most important thing."
But first of all, what is curling?
The basic rules are easy. Two teams of four members each compete against each other. During an "end" or "inning," both teams alternate sliding a 42-pound stone affixed with a handle down a 146-foot sheet of ice at a bullseye (the bullseye is either painted on the concrete under the ice sheet, like hockey lines, or in between layers of the ice). An inning ends when all team members on both sides have thrown a stone.
The object of the game is to have more of your stones in the bullseye than the opposing team, and it's perfectly legal to hit the opposing team's stones and knock them off the bullseye. A typical game lasts eight innings and takes about two hours to play.
The intricacies of the game, like any other sport, are much more complex. The bullseyes, one on each end of the ice, are bracketed by end lines, and any stone crossing the backline is automatically removed from play. Behind each backline are the "hacks," a pair of rubber stops set in the ice from which to push off. The team member sliding a stone must begin with one foot on a hack (right or left is the player's preference). Keeping the stone on the ice, the thrower goes down on one or two knees and pushes off, sliding with the stone still in hand. The stone must be released by the "hogline," one of two lines painted on the ice approximately twenty feet inside of each bullseye. In order for a stone to count, it must cross the opposite hogline, which is painted in front of each bulleye.
That's when they bust out the brooms. After the team member releases the stone, the other three team members surround the stone with brooms in hand, moving with it and, depending on where the team captain wants the stone to stop, either sweeping the ice in front of the stone or allowing it to slide on its own. The sweeping, according to Jay Wilson, a member of the North Shore Curling Club, melts the top layer of the ice. "As the stone is thrown," explains Wilson, "it spins on the ice and, over the length of the ice sheet, hooks or curls. Hence the name curling. The purpose of the sweeping--or not sweeping--is to slow down or speed up the curl."
Strategy, as well as the last throw, is of vital importance. Though eight stones are thrown during each inning, because it's legal to knock your opponents stones out, eight stones rarely remain in the bullseye after an inning. Additionally, if a team already has a stone in the bullseye, it's wise to have a stone stop before the bullseye in order to protect your team's stone--leaving a "guard." According to Reid, curling is "like playing a game of chess, only you're standing on the board."
Curling is generally accepted to have begun in sixteenth-century Scotland, where it was played by Scottish farmers on the (since drained) frozen marshes, using "channel stones," which were naturally smoothed by water erosion. It is essentially an environmentally adapted form of "camp," a ball game developed during the eleventh-century Norman invasion of Britain, and the basis from which most modern games (football, soccer, baseball, hockey) are derived.
However, according to the "History of Curling," not everyone accepts the game's Scottish origins. In 1811 Scottish writer Reverend James Ramsay published "An Account of the Game of Curling," concluding: "...but the whole of the terms being Continental [from mainland Europe] compel us to ascribe a Continental origin." Ramsay believed that the game had been invented by Flemish sportsmen who had immigrated to Scotland during the reign of King James VI (James I of England).
Period art seems to confirm Ramsay's assertion. Two oil paintings from the 1560s, "Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Birdtrap" and "Hunters in the Snow," both by Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel, depict "eisschiessen," a Bavarian ice-shooting game quite similar to modern curling. Additionally, the Dutch artist R. de Baudous' engraving "Hyems" portrays people sliding discs of wood across frozen waterways. The continental theory hit an archeological wall, however, when a pond in Duhblane, Scotland, was drained and revealed the "Stirling Stone," a curling stone engraved with the date 1511, and still another inscribed 1551.
Scots first brought the game to North America in 1759, and the game was introduced to the United States in 1832. The first known North American curling club was the Montreal Curling Club, formed in 1807 by men who had been playing the sport on the frozen St. Lawrence River behind old Molson's brewery. Worth noting is that hockey, generally considered to be Canada's national sport, was (according to "Total Hockey") also developed around the same time in Windsor, Nova Scotia.
The game in Chicago can be traced back to the mid-1800s. The original Chicago Curling Club, now defunct, in "The Standard Guide to Chicago for the Year 1892," noted that Chicagoans had been curling since 1854. This group of American curling forebears held its meetings at 83 Madison Street and played in old Grant Park. Much of Chicago's curling history, from the defunct Chicago Curling Club to its present incarnation, as well as bits and pieces of the sport's international history, can be found at the American Curling Museum, the only one of its kind in the United States, located inside the Chicago Curling Club's facilities.
Unlike hockey, curlers' love of their sport is driven by a strict adherence to sportsmanship. Instead of hockey's unspoken law--the Draconian punishment of pugilistic fury in retaliation for offenses of only the most heinous variety--curlers pledge allegiance to the honor of sportsmanship, the dogma that winning is only everything as long as it's done within the confines of the games lawfulness.
"The Spirit of Curling" spells it out: "Curlers play to win but never to humble their opponents. A true curler would prefer to lose than to win unfairly... while the main object of the game is to determine the relative skill of the players, the spirit of the game demands good sportsmanship, kindly feeling and honorable conduct."
It's a regimen of honor that is best characterized by the time-honored tradition of "broomstacking," during which you sit with your opponent after the game and the losers buy the winners a round of drinks, and then the winners--just to show they're good sports--return the favor. Broomstacking as a tradition of the game is documented in the Montreal Curling Club's original bylaws, which stated that the losing team "must pay for a bowl of whiskey toddy."
The tradition of sportsmanship is the blood of today's curlers. "The game is honorable over all," says Reid. "It's a game of gentlemen. You want to win because you won, not because your opponent lost."
Ask curlers why they do it, why they love it, and you'll get a series of different answers, though most were turned on to the sport by a friend or loved one, and for the exercise. Wilson was introduced to this sport by his wife. "[She] was a curler," he recalls, "and I never saw her for the first five winters we were married."
And though it would seem to be the easiest of sports--no contact, combined with seemingly little physical exertion--all curlers will tell you that the sport's apparent simplicity is deceiving. "Trying to land that stone on the bullseye," notes Wilson, "is like trying to sink a 25-foot putt in golf. It doesn't take long to learn how to curl, but to do it well, that takes four or five years."
The exercise factor plays a large part as well, especially considering winter's penchant for adding extra pounds to the average Chicagoan who doesn't like running outside in below-freezing weather. "The sweepers walk the length of the ice [140 feet] during every throw," explains Reid. "Over the course of the game, even though you're not sweeping on every throw, that comes out to more than a half-mile of sweeping for every game. Over a game, you burn about 1,000 calories, and you work up quite a sweat.
"My youngest son had never curled," she says. "He thought it was the stupidest thing he'd ever seen. Until, that is, he tried to curl two games in a row, and couldn't walk the next day. You find muscles in your legs you never knew you had."
Alas, the problem faced by curling clubs in the United States is encouraging younger people to play. It's a problem Reid admits. "The popularity of curling among the youth has waned."
Not so, however, in Canada. Present at the Chicago Curling Club's bonspiel are a number of teen-age curlers from Canada. Dayna Deruelle, 17, from Branmpton, Ontario, has curled since he was 7 years old, and notes that, in Canada, "younger people are getting more and more into it." This curling season, Deruelle has already visited the States three times for bonspiels.
The problem of recruiting new curlers is one the Chicago Curling Club is trying to solve. On occasional weekends, the club hosts open curling instruction for free, which lets first-timers get on the ice and experience it for themselves. Additionally, there are junior tournaments (junior is defined as under 30 by the Club), men's and women's mixed leagues, women-only leagues and Sunday Youth Leagues.
And although Chicago's youth may not have taken curling to heart, curling has become a worldwide sport. Approved as a medal sport for the Winter Olympics in 1998, it was an Olympic demonstration sport in 1924 (Chamoux), 1932 (Lake Placid), 1988 (Calgary) and 1992 (Albertville). Organized leagues exist in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most of the continental European countries. There has been a World Curling Tour since 1993, and world championships have been held since 1959 (for women since 1979). Predictably, Canada is the world powerhouse of curling, capturing twenty-six men's world championships (the U.S. has won four) and ten women's world championships (though the Swedish women's team, led by Elisabet Gustafson, has won three of the last five). A national association for curling, the United States Curling Association, was formed in 1986, and changed to the National Governing Body in 1994.
But despite the game's growing profile on an international and national level, curling is a game that must be played to be enjoyed. The sensation of a perfect throw, from the push off the hack to the release at the hogline, to the sweeping and the stone's curl, from backline to backline, must be felt, not watched. "I love curling," says Deruelle, "but after a while, it gets boring to watch."
No, curling is not a spectator sport for lay people. It is winter exercise, a reason to socialize, a chance for every member of the family--regardless of age--to compete against or with each other.
As one man walks off the ice at the Chicago Curling Club's bonspiel, his words reflect the spirit of the game. "We curled. We lost. Now I'm having a beer and I'm about to smoke a cigar."
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