DIRECT FROM THE FROZEN LOCHS OF SCOTLAND, THE SPORT OF CURLING IS HOT ON THE SOUTH SHOREBY JENNIFER H. MCINERNEY PHOTOGRAPHY BY DERRICK ZELLMANN
It’s a Saturday night at the Bridgewater Ice Arena, and the crowded lobby buzzes from wall to wall with excited energy and anticipation. They’ve come from all over the South Shore, as well as points north and south—competitive college coeds, athletically inclined retirees, close-knit families, fun-loving friends and couples testing the frozen waters of a different sort of date night.
They’re all here for the same reason: to try the sport of curling, under the tutelage of the South Shore Curling Club (SSCC). Some became fans of this one-of-a-kind sport while watching the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Others are here on a dare by a friend or on a personal challenge to take a slippery step outside their comfort zones.
Collectively, they’re eager to take to the ice and discover the nuances of curling, which, at first glance, appears to encompass the grace of ballet, the precision of bowling, and the underappreciated and rather comical skill of speed-sweeping.
Shared exclamations of “I’m so excited to try this!” and “It looks like so much fun!” fill the lobby. But there are a few nervous faces, people perhaps wondering what exactly they’ve gotten themselves into.
“I’d encourage anyone who’s even mildly interested in curling to give it a try,” says Rob Costa, president of the South Shore Curling Club. “It’s the most fun sport I’ve ever played, and it can be picked up very quickly.”
BROOMSTICKS AND STONES
Because of the strategy and concentration involved, curling has often been referred to as chess on ice. The sport originated on the frozen lakes and marshes of Scotland in the 1500s and eventually made its debut in North America in the 18th century. Today, there are 170 clubs in the United States, including the South Shore Curling Club (SSCC), in Bridgewater, the Cape Cod Curling Club, in Falmouth, and the Broomstones Curling Club, in Wayland.
Established in June 2010, the SSCC has 40 active members who compete in weekly intramural matches from October through April. The club also conducts periodic three-hour “Learn to Curl” clinics—as many as necessary to meet local demand. During its inaugural season, SSCC hosted four clinics; following the 2014 Winter Olympics, the club saw a spike in the number of people who wanted to try curling.
“The Olympic Games have definitely been the driving force behind the growing popularity of curling,” Costa observes. “After the last Winter Olympics, we had to hold seven ‘Learn to Curl’ sessions in order to accommodate all of the interest.”
A curling match consists of two teams of four players each, who work together to facilitate the timely delivery of their team’s eight “stones” to the target at center ice. Keep in mind that the stones, which are also called rocks, are made of granite and weigh 42 pounds.
Other than the stones themselves, the essential tools used in curling are the broom (or brush) that is used for sweeping or “polishing” the ice in front of the stone, and the slider, a special Teflon material that’s attached to the sole of the sliding foot for smoother and more controlled execution of play. No ice skates are necessary.
The lead player launches a stone onto the ice, while two sweepers frantically clear a path to accelerate the stone’s forward progress. The “Skip” standing on the opposite end of the rink calls out directives to lead the team to victory. The team that guides the most rocks into the 12-foot-diameter ring scores the most points for that round of play.
While all of the positions are pivotal, the role of the Skip is multifold: with both offensive and defensive responsibilities. This player signals to each teammate which direction to aim and spin the stone as it’s launched—whether to the right or left, clockwise or counter-clockwise—to increase the team’s odds of scoring points.
Also, much of the strategy falls under the Skip’s domain. For example, he or she issues the “Hurry!” command to sweep harder and faster, or shouts “Stop!” so the sweepers will lift their brooms at the appropriate moment to slow or stop the stone so that it lands in the desired position, as close to the central target as possible.
When it’s the opposing team’s turn to shoot, the Skip has the opportunity to attempt to sweep the opponent’s incoming stone out of the ring, causing the other team to potentially lose a point.
In addition to the specialized equipment used to play the game, skating conditions at the ice arena must be carefully controlled to ensure safe, yet challenging, curling. The otherwise smooth ice that’s ideal for hockey is sprayed with warm water to produce a pebbled surface that hinders the speed of the curling stone. However, when the sweepers move their brooms back and forth, the resulting friction creates momentary heat that melts a thin top layer of ice and, thus, increases the stone’s rate of speed.
Another part of curling’s appeal is that “it’s one of the few winter sports that literally anyone can play,” Costa adds. Hence the sold-out preseason clinics at the Bridgewater Ice Arena, where the curling lesson is about to begin.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
The masses of newbie curlers are dispersed into smaller groups of three or four and assigned to a coach and an assistant. Andrea, our coach, asks everyone to join her in a series of warm-up stretches engaging the calves, quads, glutes, ankles, shoulders and triceps: “Because, in curling, you will move in ways you’ve never moved before, she says.”
A glance onto the rink confirms her point: a young man crouched in a deep lunge glides across the ice, never wavering from his well-balanced stance. Even without the evidence of his SSCC logo shirt, it’s clear that he’s a seasoned curler.
Next, Andrea prompts us all through a vocal drill, asking us to shout, “Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!” as loudly as our voices will allow. If our teammates can’t hear our commands, then defeat is inevitable. She’s impressed by our collective volume, as our words boom up into the rafters. We’re ready for the next step: form and balance.
Andrea demonstrates the proper positioning of our feet and legs to produce “a good, long slide.” She instructs us to choose one foot as our gripper foot and one as our sliding foot and explains the ideal distribution of weight between the two. In one hand, we’ll lightly grasp the handle atop the stone, and hold a stabilizer PVC bar with the other. Then she teaches us the push-off: slide slightly forward on the sliding foot, rock backward on the gripper foot and then push forward into a deep lunge, all the while maintaining our balance.
The first woman in our group to try it slides several feet and then rises from her lunge. “That felt cool,” she says, with awe in her tone. Following additional practice, we advance to releasing the stone at the end of the slide. After a few turns, my husband, Kevin, finds that he’s quite comfortable with the multifaceted maneuver. Within minutes, he’s gliding nearly 20 feet across the ice and the stone continues his momentum upon release. “It’s not as hard as it looks,” he remarks, “as long as you have your balance.”
Once each group has mastered the basics of curling, the players are ready for their first-ever match. From one edge of the rink to the other, shouts of “Hurry!” and “Stop” intermingle with cheers and applause in appreciation of everyone’s quickly learned skills. Before they set foot in the Bridgewater Arena, these rookies hadn’t the slightest notion of how to curl. Now they are part of a centuries-old community of curlers.
Finally, it’s time for one of the most enjoyable and time-honored curling traditions: broomstacking. This term refers to the coming together of both teams, immediately following the match, to celebrate with refreshments and share in the curling camaraderie. Legend has it that long-ago players would stack their brooms by the fire and enjoy a pint with their opponents. “This is one of the best parts and one of the things I like about curling—the heavy focus on sportsmanship and mutual respect,” Costa concludes.