To many, curling is an obscure sport. To most it is unfamiliar. The world catches a short glimpse of the game every four years during the winter Olympics. But it is rarely discussed otherwise.
Lisa Schoeneberg was the skip of the U.S. national curling team in the 1990s. She called the shots on the ice. She told the sweepers when to scrub and when to let the stone glide. She was, at the same time, a captain, a coach and a player — the most experienced and knowledgeable member of the team.
Schoeneberg competed in the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. She won silver medals at the 1992 and 1996 World Curling Championships. It is unlikely that you’ll recognize her name. I didn’t when I met her on Saturday at the Madison Curling Club.
I had gone to Madison to visit an old friend who had just moved back to Wisconsin. He said he had recently realized that watching Netflix and drinking whisky didn’t exactly qualify as a hobby. He wanted to try something new.
A flier for a curling team at work caught his eye.
Curling was different from anything else he had considered doing. It was something completely foreign.
I had always thought of curling like I had thought of ribbon twirling at the summer Olympics — a sport that didn’t belong among so many others that seemed to require more strength and agility; more athleticism.
But I said I’d go with him — it might be a laugh.
The Madison Curling Club holds an open house on Saturday mornings. Anyone can come in and give curling a try for free, but there is an optional $5 donation. Club members, some of them expert curlers, volunteer to show people around and teach the basics.
We walked in around 10 a.m. A friendly volunteer named Doug led us to a lounge area to watch a film about curling history. A woman took our shoes and prepped them for the ice — grass, dirt and rocks can ruin the ice surface, and must be cleaned off.
Curling is very old. The sport has its roots in medieval Scotland, where records are said to contain descriptions of the game dating back to the early 16th century.
Players in ancient times slid river stones across frozen ponds and had little to no control over the ultimate resting place of their throws. They competed against each other by trying to glide their stones closest to a designated area across the ice.
Scots still refer to it as “the roaring game” because of the noise each stone makes while it glides over the ice.
Today the game is defined by its subtlety. Players glide across the ice in positions that require incredible muscle control, extreme flexibility and absolute concentration.
Coordination and balance are required.
The game is played with two teams, each composed of four members.
The point of the game is to glide each round, granite stone across the ice so that it rests closest to the “button,” or the center pin of three concentric circles at the opposite end. The scoring is similar to bocci ball.
Each team member throws two stones per “end” which is like an inning in baseball. There are 10 ends in each curling game. Throws alternate between teams.
We took the ice, armed with a specially designed curling broom – what you see players scrubbing the ice with ahead of each stone – and a “slider.” Sliders are teflon covers that fit over your shoe to create less friction on the ice. Every player wears one sliding and one non-sliding shoe.
But the ice has surprisingly good traction. Little droplets of water are sprayed onto the ice by a specialist who works at the club – kind of like a greenskeeper at a golf course. He designs the ice to have a certain amount of texture or “pebble,” which affects the curve of each throw and plays into each team’s strategy during a game. But there isn’t a standard pebble – the ice varies depending on the club’s preferences.
We walked onto the ice and tried to get our curling legs. It was difficult. Much more difficult than we expected. After Doug did a few demonstrations, showing us proper throwing technique, another member joined us and started coaching our form. It was Schoeneberg, and she knew what she was talking about.
Doug gave us a chance to throw. A woman in our group, also a novice, volunteered first. She tried to imitate Doug’s form, lost her balance and fell. My friend did the same.
When it was my turn, I was reasonably confident. I have been a skier my whole life and am very comfortable sliding around in no-friction situations. I was a decent athlete in high school. I played football and rugby. I golf and play pick-up basketball games. I write about sports for a living and have always felt confident that I had a certain degree of athleticism. But I was not prepared for curling.
I imitated Doug’s form. I listened to Schoeneberg’s corrections. I put my right foot on the rubber starting block and slid my left foot – my gliding foot – behind the stone. I rocked forward and back to get some momentum going and pushed off.
Though I didn’t fall, I wobbled and struggled to keep my balance. I stretched muscles in my legs and sides I had never used before, and though very comfortable in sports that I had previously thought required more strength, agility and athleticism, in curling, I was completely inept.
But the very small victory of not falling on my first try was apparently enough to mildly impress the Olympic athlete who had joined our ranks. “Has he done this before?” she asked my friend while I twisted and grunted on the ice wishing I had tightened my belt a little before pushing off. I had exposed a little more of my backside than I intended.
I got to my feet and looked across the ice to the club members who glided effortlessly with perfect form and understood why it belonged among speed-skating, skiing, bobsledding and the like.
These curlers were athletes. They could determine precisely where a 40-pound granite stone would come to rest based on their own delivery speed and the degree at which they gently rotate the handle upon release.
They balanced explosive power and gentle skill. The best curlers practiced hard for years to refine their form, their technique, and their muscle tone. Wins were earned. Experience was revered. These were athletes.
And I wasn’t one of them – at least not yet. Janesville has the nearest curling club to Lake Geneva. I might stop in and give the sport another try. Curling might not look very impressive on TV, but down on the ice it’s a battle. Doug called it “Chess on ice.”
Though I used to mock it, curling has my respect. And so do its players.