The Winter Olympics are just two weeks away and I’m as excited as Al Michaels calling the Russian game. When it comes to Olympics, make mine winter, please. The summer games are great, but there’s something about the winter sports. I remember being so inspired by Dorothy Hamill’s figure skating gold in the 1976 Winter Olympics that my sister and I set our alarms to start training the very next morning. We lasted about 20 minutes at the nearby outdoor rink before home and hot chocolate called. Would-be fame and glory shattered by Swiss Miss.
While well-known sports like figure skating and hockey are fun to watch, part of the fun is seeing those less popular sports like the luge, the biathlon or curling.
I remember being mesmerized watching curling in 2010. While I understood very little about the game, I found myself unable to break away from the TV screen as I watched the competitors plot, strategize and deliver the stones down the ice. I swore before the next Olympics I’d try to understand the game of curling a little better.
My timing was perfect. The Fargo Moorhead Curling Club just got done hosting the U.S. Olympic trials and opening its new 2.7 million-dollar facility in Southwest Fargo. They also have some rising stars in their midst.
Four Davies High School seniors and one Minot State University freshman make up a team that has won the North Dakota High School championship two years in a row and most recently qualified to compete at the 2014 USA Curling Junior National Championships in Seattle this weekend. They will face just 9 other teams for the opportunity to represent the United States at World Junior Championships in Switzerland.
Branden Scheel, Tyler Johnson, Aaron Johnson and Hunter Dennison were nice enough to invite me out to their practice to teach me what curling is all about. The four men have been friends for years. Tyler and Aaron’s mother Kristi says they only got into curling because they were looking for something to do.
“We told them, ‘we don’t want you sitting around all winter playing your X-Box! Find something!’ ” she says.
Johnson says the boys went to an open house at the curling club in 7th grade and they couldn’t get them off the ice. Now they practice a couple of times a week and compete in tournaments on the weekends.
About 300 adults curl at FM Curling and they offer lessons to children as well. Scheel teaches children, so perhaps that’s why he was given the responsibility of showing me the ropes. Watch the video to see why Scheel and his teammates deserve a medal for extreme patience with a middle-aged woman.
It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot and feel more equipped to understand the game while I watch it on TV. Here are the Top 5 things I think you should know about curling:
1. It is one of the oldest sports in the world. Paintings from the 16th century show people curling on outdoor ponds. Written evidence has been found as early as 1540 of games existing in Scotland.
2. The ice isn’t what you’d expect. I figured ice is ice is ice. I’ve been to hockey games, figure skated and even suffered through high school PE broomball games and the ice was pretty standard. But curling ice isn’t smooth and glassy. It’s more nubby and pebbled. Ice technicians sprinkle water onto the ice. Those droplets freeze to create a textured surface that helps the curling rocks slide down the ice and make their path more predictable than smooth-as-glass ice.
3. My shoes surprised me too. They’re different. The right shoe looks like a pretty standard black orthopedic shoe. But the left shoe has a protective sleeve on the bottom – like one big galosh without a mate. When you remove it, and step on the ice, watch out! There are discs on the bottom of the left shoe that are designed to help you slide when you throw. It’s hard to keep steady on that foot. I wiped out a couple of times (not agony of defeat falling off a ski jump serious. But still I didn’t want to break a hip).
4. It’s not shuffleboard on ice. Scheel says that’s probably the biggest misconception people have. He says curling is its own sport, but the strategizing makes it closer to chess on ice.
5. While it might be chess on ice, it requires more athleticism than I first thought. I had a friend who enjoyed curling because as he said, “I like any sport where I can keep my beer cold while I play.” So my expectations were lowered. Not to mention Scheel, Johnson, Johnson and Dennison make it look so easy. But it’s not.
It requires strength and balance to lunge during a throw and upper body strength for the brushing they do to clear the way for the stone. The next day after my curling lesson my legs and arms were sore. That doesn’t happen when I lie on my couch and watch other people curl.
Thanks to Team North Dakota for teaching me. We’re proud of you and wish you much luck. I’m available if you need an alternate for Seattle. Or perhaps I should just go find a nice mug of Swiss Miss.