Adventures in Curling

I have never been a sports-oriented person. I was one of those kids who tried every trick in the book to get out of gym. I don’t really follow any baseball, football or hockey team. I do like the Toronto Raptors, but it’s mostly for their mascot, and it is purely out of my lifelong affection for dinosaurs. I know next to nothing about the actual GAME of basketball, other than the fact that getting hit in the face with the ball really hurts.

Nonetheless, every couple of years I am seized with a peculiar madness that makes me sit for hours in front of the TV watching what seem to be the world’s most obscure sports. I am, in fact, an Olympics Fanatic. I’m not sure why. It predates my interest in Ancient Greece (which goes back to when I was about 7 years old). I have said on occasion that it’s kind of a beautiful idea, that people from all around the world gather in one city…just to play GAMES.

Maybe I’m into the Olympics just because my family would reflexively turn on the Games whenever they were on, and they were part of the background noise of my childhood, yet the fact that they were only on every 4 years made them a special occasion. (This was back when the Summer and Winter Games would take place in the same year.) I was lucky enough to grow up with my ancient great-grandmother. She spoke no English, so I would sit next to her and translate what was going on. Even during my hard-studying high school and college years, I made it a point to take time out to watch the Olympics. I developed the personal mantra: “I love exercise, I can sit and watch other people do it for hours!” I even collect Summer (and some Winter) Olympic mascot toys.

Not only do I watch the Olympics obsessively, but from a young age I knew that I wanted to see the Olympics LIVE in their host city. This may stem from the fact that in 1980 the Games were in Lake Placid, which was a not-impossible driving distance from my home in New York City. But in those days we had no Internet and being only 12 I had no idea how to get tickets to the games, no funds to pay for them, and no way to convince the Grown-ups to take me. I didn’t manage to get to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, either, but when they went to Atlanta in 1996 I had a window of opportunity. One of my best college friends lived in Atlanta! With her help, I got an order form for tickets and a promise I could stay at her house. I convinced a cousin of mine to come with me. (She is an intrepid traveler and with her I have gone on several vacation adventures). Well, long story short, we got tickets, we went, and we had a pretty good time, even though it was beastly hot and we had a few missteps and misadventures on the way.

I was even more pleased in 2002 when the Winter Games were in Salt Lake City. By this time I had a full-time job, my own credit cards, and the tickets were being sold online. I recruited my cousin again and we convinced a couple of other relatives (including her husband at the time) to rent a condo in Deer Valley, a ski resort and Olympic venue host about 30 minutes up the mountains from downtown Salt Lake City. Among the tickets I ordered were the requisite figure skating tickets (the one sport I do care about more than any other…actually it’s one of my pet obsessions, but that’s another story); we also got tickets for skiing, speedskating and a number of other events.

One of the tickets I got was for Curling. I first saw the sport on TV during the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, though I had vaguely heard about it before. I had decided to get the tickets more out of amusement value than anything else – on TV I’d vaguely seen the players frantically wielding their wacky-looking brooms, sweeping the ice ahead of a crazy sliding rock that looked like a big gray donut with a handle. When I told my cousin I’d scored Olympic Curling tickets she was very dubious. I said, “Look, at the very least, we can MOCK it.” My cousin and I share many inside jokes and she appreciated the opportunity to get some new material. So off we went.

The Olympic Curling venue at the Salt Lake games was not in the city itself, but in a very unassuming town called Ogden, Utah. We’d already been at the games for a week or so and by then I had gotten used to the area’s rustic charm. We saw very beautiful scenery while driving along the mountain roads around Salt Lake City. I found out that the Purple Mountains Majesty is not just an expression – at sunset the mountains do literally look purple. At one point in our peregrinations around the host region, my cousin’s French husband was so moved by the scenery he exclaimed, “This is America! This is the Wild Wild West!”

The curling venue was as unassuming as its surroundings, a modest, functional building decorated with the Olympic rings and banners. As soon as we got out, though, we knew it was going to be an interesting afternoon. For in the parking lot we saw…Canadian Fans.

Curling is big in Canada, possibly due to a large number of people of Scottish Descent. The parking lot was full of VERY ENTHUSIASTIC CANADIANS. Many people were dressed from head-to-toe in some kind of red-and-white Maple Leaf finery. One guy was wearing a bunch of tiny Canadian flags on little poles sticking out from his head, his shoulders and various other positions. Another guy was dressed like a Mountie. I also recall seeing men in kilts but I don’t know if they were Scots or Canadian. (It could have gone either way.) When we took our seats – surrounded by folks in red sweatjackets emblazoned “CANADA,” I was wondering if we were the only Americans who had bothered to show up.

The games began, and sure enough when we started, everything looked ridiculous to us. There was one guy squatting on the ice, sliding this silly round stone towards a giant target. Then two other guys ran maniacally IN FRONT of the stone, sweeping the ice madly while everybody was YELLING AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS!

According to the handy pamphlet we had gotten with our tickets, we learned that the sweeping supposedly melts the ice and reduces friction to make the stone go faster – they are not allowed to actually TOUCH the stone. Then the idea is to get the stone as close to the center of the target (the “button”) as possible. There are 10 stones per team and they try to knock their opponents’ stone out of the circle, or use their stones to block the other teams’ stone…there are a number of strategies. (See here for more details.)

I have to say, the game is more fascinating than you might think. Yes, we started out by mocking it. Less than one hour in (of a three-hour session) we were starting to get it. We started listening to the comments passed back and forth by our Canadian seat mates and then we got INTO it. By the end of the afternoon we were totally enthralled…”Do you think he’ll make that shot? Do you think he’ll get a Double-Takeout?”

By the time we went back to the parking lot we were CURLING FANS!

(Strangely enough, I can’t now remember exactly which curling game in the tournament we saw, nor who won. We were more enthralled by the sport itself than who was playing.)

Curling has a cyclical level of interest (at least, outside Canada) along with other obscure Olympic sports like Luge. When the 2006 Olympics came on TV, the network showed 3 hours of coverage a day. My DVR was full of Curling and I watched it faithfully.

The 2010 Olympics were going to be in Vancouver, Canada. By this point I was totally hooked on going to the Games and I was able to score some tickets and convince my cousin to come again. I didn’t get to as many events as we’d seen the last time, but I made sure to get at least one Figure Skating ticket ….and CURLING SEMI-FINALS! I figured, if the Canadians were in fine form in Utah they were going to be out of control (in a good way) on home soil. (By the way, I am absolutely a fan of female Olympians, but so far mere luck has determined that both times I’ve gotten tickets to Men’s Curling events.)

We were not disappointed in Vancouver. The Curling venue was in a large park-like area surrounded by a lovely residential neighborhood. It was unusually warm that year and the cherry blossom trees were already blooming in late February.

Cherry Blossoms Already Blooming at Vancouver Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

Cherry Blossoms Already Blooming at Vancouver Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

When we got into the building, it was like a rock concert. There was a huge home crowd gathered – Canada was in the semi-finals (not surprising). Two games were going to be played simultaneously – Canada vs. Sweden and Norway vs. Switzerland. Team Norway had by now achieved notoriety for their loud and colorful trousers and that day their outfits did not disappoint.

Team Norway's Amazing Pants (Photo by K. Kindya)

Team Norway’s Amazing Pants (Photo by K. Kindya)

There were many enthusiastic blocks of fans from all the nations, shouting, cheering and singing.

By this time, my cousin and I were not there to mock…we were Of the Faithful. We were rooting for Canada of course (USA had been knocked out of contention a while ago), but I was totally amused by the Norwegians as well. Others in the audience were showing their sartorial enthusiasm – by this point the Norwegians’ costumes had gotten enough TV coverage that there were people in the audience wearing entire suits of red-white-and-blue argyle (the colors of the Norwegian flag).

Team Norway's Fans wear Loud Suits (Photo by K. Kindya)

Team Norway’s Fans wear Loud Suits (Photo by K. Kindya)

There also, of course, were the requisite Canadian red and white and/or maple-leaf ensembles. I also ran into some folks who had acquired lovely foam hats in the shape of curling stones.

One of several Canadian cheering sections at the Men's Curling semi-finals in Vancouver 2010 (Photo by K. Kindya)

One of several Canadian cheering sections at the Men’s Curling semi-finals in Vancouver 2010 (Photo by K. Kindya)

While we watched, straining our limited (though enthusiastic) knowledge of the game, two elderly ladies in the row behind us were exchanging with each other DEEP analysis of the Canadian team’s prospects and strategies. On the giant tv monitors around the room, whenever any team scored significantly, we saw an adorable animation of one of the Olympic mascots, a cartoon marmot wearing a knit cap (aka a “tocque”) waving a foam finger that said “We’re #1!”.

Canada won their match first, and there was much rejoicing. However, a hilarious thing then happened as the Norwegians continued their contest against the Swiss. The Canadians in the audience started cheering the Norwegians to win! They chanted, “WE WANT THE PANTS! WE WANT THE PANTS!”

It apparently worked because Team Norway won their game and went on to face Canada in the finals.

Final Score at the Men's  Curling Semi-Finals at 2010 Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

Final Score at the Men’s Curling Semi-Finals at 2010 Olympics (Photo by K. Kindya)

(In case you’re wondering, Team Canada scored the gold, and Norway the silver. We’d gotten back home by then but I saw the finals on TV.)

I was not the only one who caught the Curling bug. Stephen Colbert, the TV personality, made a running gag of trying out for Olympic sports on his show, The Colbert Report, and one of his segments had him visiting a curling club in New Jersey. (It’s about two hours’ driving distance from my house.) A couple of my friends forwarded me an e-mail from that club after the Olympics, inviting people to try a 3-hour introductory curling lesson. (I suppose every year after the Olympics they get a chance to recruit new members.) Having gotten hooked on the TV Olympic coverage themselves, my friends asked me to join them.

Now, as mentioned above, I’m not INTO sports. However, I did do archery in college and I still am a fan. (I’ve seen it at two summer Olympics. I saw it back in Atlanta in ’96 and after Vancouver in 2010 I saw it in London in 2012.) I figured, why not try Curling? It can’t be as hard as figure skating looks!

So, we drove down to yet another very unassuming Curling club and took our 3 hour lesson.

Well, dear readers…CURLING IS NOT EASY. At least, it wasn’t for me. It took me an hour longer than my friends did to learn even the basic moves. The movements are not what one imagines they may be while watching the game. You actually don’t propel the stone with your arms; when you crouch on the ice, you keep one leg forward and push your whole body with your back leg, using your hip muscles. You then slide along the ice yourself, being pulled by the stone’s momentum until you let go of the stone and it continues on its way. The stance was not easy for me to maintain; I kept losing my balance and falling onto my right side and hip. The stone rarely got very far or very fast.

This is me, attempting to curl.

This is me, attempting to curl.

The sweeping part was a little easier for me, but one of my friends slipped and fell onto her back, getting a nasty bump on the head.  Luckily, she recovered. By the day after, the three of us had aches in muscles we didn’t know we had. I had an impressive set of bruises on my side. On TV it doesn’t look like a full-contact sport.

I now have an even greater respect for the game than those early days when I thought it was silly. I didn’t go to the Sochi games, but I faithfully watched the curling (still 3 hours of coverage a day). Team Norway was back with even wackier trousers. I haven’t managed to go curling again, but if I ever go to another Winter Olympics I’ll be sure to get my tickets. I might even wear a crazy foam curling-stone hat and Loudmouth Golf Pants.

I raise my Powerade to the 2010 Olympic Curling Program!

I raise my Powerade to the 2010 Olympic Curling Program!

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