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The Boston Phoenix Heart of Stone

The sport of curling is not, despite its recent burst of fame, something new. And it's not as funny as you think it is.

By Tom Scocca

MARCH 2, 1998:  Grayland Cousins hitches his trousers, kneels, and sets his toes against the hack, curling stone in hand. It's the seventh stone of the fourth end of the final match of the East Coast mixed-team curling championship, held this year at the Nashua Country Club of Nashua, New Hampshire. This is a critical scoring opportunity, with Cousins's team, from Broomstones Curling Club in Wayland, holding a 3-1 lead over a team of the host Nashuans. Cousins, arguably the best curler in New England, tips the stone on edge and brushes off its underside, using his curling broom.

The hack is something like a sprinter's starting block, sunk in the ice. The stone is granite, circular, and about 42 pounds, with a handle that makes it look almost exactly like a teakettle. The broom is a broom only in name and general appearance; instead of bristles, it has a tough, cloth-covered pad like a dry-board eraser.

A month ago, the chance that the man on the street would recognize any of these things was vanishingly small. But now, thanks to the presence of curling as a medal sport in the Winter Olympics in Nagano, the basics of an esoteric game are suddenly public knowledge. You slide the stones down the ice, toward a target. Some other people sweep in front of them with brooms. Sometimes the rocks hit other rocks. Curling has appeared on NPR, CBS, and TNT. It's been written up in the Boston Globe and Newsweek. The January Lands' End catalogue features a beaming squad of US women's curlers on its cover -- Lands' End being the official outfitter of the US curling teams.

Unfortunately for curlers like Cousins, the attention has not been particularly flattering. The Winter Olympics was presented as a figure-skating show, as usual, with a bit of hockey or ski racing thrown in for excitement. Curling, making its Olympic debut after several centuries as a competitive sport, was little more than a handy punch line: reporting from Nagano, NPR's Tom Goldman referred cheerfully to "skiers and skaters and hockey players, and yes, even curlers"; David Letterman's mother covered curling for The Late Show.

"They've judged the sport as something that's to be made fun of," says Karyn Cousins, Grayland's wife and the Broomstones' leadoff curler, after the match. "Some people are getting harassed by their friends. . . . I think people get the impression that it's an easy thing to do."

The impression is probably based mostly on curling's remarkable slowness. The stones glide down the 146-foot sheet of ice in about half a minute, the pace of a brisk stroll. Between throws, teams spend several seconds mulling over their options for the next shot. In championship play, each team is required to get through 10 ends (equivalent to innings), throwing eight rocks an end, in a leisurely 75 minutes; in its final qualifying match, against a team from Belfast, Maine, the Nashua team managed to use so much of that allotment that it had to rush through some of its final shots.

Along with the slowness, spectators are confronted with the sweeping. This is the part that looks ridiculous, two or three players scrubbing the ice frantically at an invisible spot just ahead of the moving stone. But this is an essential part of the game's teamwork: after a stone has been released, the sweeping, which melts the surface of the ice to keep the stone gliding longer, can add as much as eight feet to a throw in a sport literally decided by inches. It's also strenuous. The sweepers bear down on the broomsticks with a posture weirdly like that of the Marines at Iwo Jima, and late in a match, if a key shot is coming along too slowly, some will be moved to emit a weightlifter-like grunt of pure exertion.

Still, except for the footwork needed for sweepers to avoid stones in their path, the sport demands nothing whatsoever in the way of fast-twitch reactions. Compared with the quick give-and-take of major spectator sports, it can seem outright boring, especially as the matches approach their two-and-a-half-hour time limit. And in Canada, and parts of the rural Upper Midwest, where the best curlers in North America come from, the sport enjoys the broad leisure-time popularity of bowling -- complete with beer leagues and other such homey affronts to the spirit of "citius, altius, fortius."

When Grayland Cousins delivers a stone, though, it's an unmistakably athletic moment. Down on his right knee, right foot on the hack, he swings the stone back, then glides forward with it, out of the hack. His momentum carries him several yards down the ice, still genuflecting, his body stretched out low and holding a straight line. His left shoe has a Teflon sole for low-friction sliding; the right knee of his pants is patched. In mid-glide, he releases the stone, straightening his wrist to set it spinning slowly, so it will curve, or curl, as it goes.

Cousins, a business consultant for Dunkin' Donuts, is a mild-mannered and cheerful competitor, boyish-looking and flushed, with wire-rimmed glasses. Standing, he has the sort of tall build that manages to combine good posture with the impression of slouchiness -- the build of a junkball pitcher, or of certain pro golfers. It's not a shape one would imagine moving fluidly while crouching down.

But Cousins, the captain (or "skip," in curling terms) of the four-member Broomstones team, folds up with grace. He has been refining his delivery for 26 years now, since he was a 13-year-old in Wayland. The Broomstones club put out fliers around the neighborhood, and his parents decided their three boys should try it out. "I was hooked in a half-hour," he recalls. When they started traveling to out-of-town tournaments, with mixed boy-girl teams, he was in it for good.

He kept it up after his family moved to Illinois, where he curled with his brothers on a junior men's team. Then he went to college at Wittenberg University, in Springfield, Ohio, where he would hitchhike 100 miles to Bowling Green to go curling -- wearing his fraternity shirt on the way, figuring drivers would stop for "a good wholesome college kid." Later, when his work with the A.C. Nielsen Company transferred him to Nebraska for two years, he had the luck to end up in Omaha, with the state's only curling rink. And after he met Karyn on a package tour of Russia in 1984, he introduced her to the sport; she's now been curling for 13 years.

That makes her the least experienced member of the Broomstones mixed team, which is something of an all-star squad. Three of the four -- the Cousinses plus Jim Wilson, who curls second for the team -- have curled together on two mixed national-championship teams already, in 1987 and 1996. Wilson, an old friend of Grayland's from Chicago, has 34 years' curling experience, and won a men's national championship in 1985. Sharon O'Brien, the team's vice-skip, lives in North Carolina and has been curling 15 years, winning a women's national title in 1993. The two out-of-staters, who've flown in for the competition, hold memberships in the Wayland club so the team can compete together (which fact raises some grumbling from a gray-haired Nashua rooter). Among them, all four have won considerably more regional and national titles than the average Olympic wit has, in anything.

Mixed-gender curling, however, was not on the schedule at Nagano. The highest available pinnacle for the Broomstones team is the national championships, which will be held at the Broomstones rink in Wayland this year, in the last week of March. To qualify, they need to win here at Nashua.

Before the Nashua Country Club became a country club, in 1916, it was a farm. The curling rink was a stable until it was converted in the mid-'50s. There's cheery pale-yellow siding on the outside, but the interior has austere fluorescent lighting and a low, flat ceiling. Long rows of pillars divide the ice into three narrow curling sheets. At one end is the "warm room," glassed off from the ice, with three tiers of plaid-cushioned bleachers. For the Sunday-morning match, there are perhaps a dozen and a half people watching, fairly evenly divided among Nashua fans, Broomstones fans, and officials.

It was at Nashua, back in 1972, that a 13-year-old Grayland Cousins played in his first away tournament. Curling teams are allowed to concede when a match looks hopeless, but his squad hung in for a prolonged thrashing. "We lost our first game, 21-0," he says. "Nobody had told me you could quit early. We just kept getting pounded and pounded."

Right now, though, Cousins is in good shape on the scoreboard. The Broomstones have taken an early 3-1 lead. An early 3-1 lead in curling means about the same thing it does in baseball: it's far from secure, but it gives you something to work with. And because Nashua scored in the previous end, it had to go first in this one -- which means, since the teams alternate throws, that Broomstones will end up delivering the last stone. Throwing the last stone gives them a marked advantage, known in curling parlance as "holding the hammer."

Curling is scored about like bocce. Teams aim to put their stones into the "house" -- the round target, 12 feet in diameter, at the far end of the ice. At the conclusion of each end, a team gets one point for each stone in the house that's closer to the bulls-eye, or "button," than any of the opposing team's stones. In theory, the team holding the hammer should be able to control the scoring, either by putting the last stone into the middle, or by using it to knock the opponents' stones out of scoring position. The trick is in balancing the reward of having multiple stones in the house, for more points, with the risk of cluttering up your final shot, which can allow the other team to steal the end.

Generally, in championship play, teams take a conservative strategy: they try to keep the house clear and the scoring low. This is the approach favored by the Midwestern teams that dominate American curling. But over years of competing on underdog East Coast teams, Grayland Cousins has developed a deliberately risky style. "We've got to be more aggressive to win games," he explains. "Plus, it's more fun to gamble."

As skip, he's the one responsible for implementing the strategy. Each team member throws two stones per end, in turn, while the skip stands 40 yards down the ice in the house, wearing a low galosh over the Teflon sole for traction. With the broom, the skip marks where each shot should go. Once the stones are moving, he tells the sweepers when and how hard to sweep. Then, for the last two rocks, the vice-skip takes over in the house. The skip goes down the ice to throw, to finish what the team has set up.

By the seventh rock, the Broomstones team has a big opportunity developing. The end started uneventfully enough, with Karyn Cousins and Wilson playing their Nashua counterparts to a standstill, neither side able to accumulate multiple rocks in play. On the fourth Broomstones throw, Wilson knocked a Nashua stone out of scoring position, leaving his own stone in the house by itself. "Now we're going to play replace-the-rock," a warm-room spectator muttered, and Nashua vice-skip Nancy Dimsdale, as if on cue, cleared the house out entirely.

But then Sharon O'Brien put Broomstones' fifth stone in the house, and Dimsdale tried to knock it out and missed, and O'Brien put the sixth stone in, too. Then Dimsdale's husband, Darryl, the Nashua skip, missed again, with his team's seventh stone. So as Cousins's turn comes up, Broomstones has two stones counting, with two still to go. Standing with O'Brien, Cousins studies the house and discusses options. Then he peels off his galosh and scoots off toward the hack. In the warm room, William Cousins -- the four-year-old son of Grayland and Karyn, and spectacularly well-behaved for someone whose parents have been away behind glass for big chunks of three straight days -- declares that he would throw a takeout in this situation. Someone points out that the only stones around for his daddy to take out are his daddy's own.

Cousins gets low, watching O'Brien. Then he swings back, slides, releases. The sweepers pounce on the invisible spot in front of the stone, not too vigorously. It's a good throw. The stone leaves a shiny, serpentine trail on the ice; it makes a rumbling sound, like a jetliner taking off in the medium distance. Breaking right to left, it eases into the house and trickles to a stop -- not just in scoring position, but sheltering the other stones.

Nashua has one chance left. Last night, with the all-or-nothing qualifying match against Belfast tied 7-7 in the last end, Darryl Dimsdale saved his team with a spectacular final shot, clipping a Belfast stone off the button to turn the outcome. Now, with his team in trouble again, he aims for the middle once more, and releases. The eighth and last Nashua stone comes trundling down the ice. The spectators crane. Slowing, the stone creeps into the house, toward the center . . . and through, out the back and out of play. The Nashua contingent in the warm room groans.

Broomstones has three stones in the house, Nashua none. An errant throw could still mess things up, but Cousins is not, at this point, inclined to err. He parks the eighth stone precisely on the button for the coup de grâce. Broomstones gets four points, and takes a 7-1 lead. Three ends later, trailing 13-2, the Nashuans concede.

The teams shake hands and leave the ice to separate ovations. There's a brief, informal presentation of the loving-cup trophy, with a gracious and efficient thank-you speech by the winning skip. Then, in accordance with curling tradition, both sides retreat to the country-club lounge for a round of cocktails. The national championship is in seven weeks, on Broomstones' home ice, and the team is on a roll. Fourteen time zones away, in Nagano, the world's sporting press is asleep.

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca@phx.com.

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