Curling is not as easy as it looks

Vicky Hallett
Fit editor, Express February 11

While we’re all just sitting around watching the Olympics, Anne Abernathy is training for them. Again.

The 60-year-old known as “Grandma Luge” appeared in a record six Winter Games — 1988 through 2006 — for the U.S. Virgin Islands. After a brief break from competition, she has zeroed in on a new sport: archery. With the help of coach Ruth Rowe in Centreville, she hopes to be ready for Rio 2016.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express. View Archive

So if you’ve ever wondered whether you can grow up to become an Olympian even if you’re already grown up, the answer is yes.

The question is whether it’s a good idea.

“My knee blew out last night. Welcome to the life of an Olympic athlete,” jokes Abernathy, who’s the first to admit that the path she has chosen isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. It takes every minute of your time, every ounce of your strength and every cent in your bank account.


Dominique Banville, a board member of the Potomac Curling Club. (Courtesy of Dominique Banville)

But there’s nothing like facing off against the best in the world. That’s why Abernathy can’t quit. It’s also why other folks who are old enough to know better still harbor fantasies of going for the gold.

Consider Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Bragiel, 36, who got caught up in Olympic fever last year. He moved to Finland to start cross-country skiing (which he’d never done before). He persuaded Colombia to grant him citizenship (despite his not knowing Spanish). And he looked poised to make it — until he was sidelined by sickness and missed the qualifiers for Sochi.

The lesson we can learn from Bragiel’s experience is that with enough determination and resources, you can be a contender. To walk into an Olympic stadium, you need a little bit more than that.

For starters, Abernathy says, “get a good coach and do something you love.” When she tried luge for the first time — at the age of 28 — she fell head over heels. (Although not literally: In luge, you go feet first down the track.) She hadn’t played sports in high school in Northern Virginia because her mother “didn’t think it was ladylike,” but as an adult she’d started playing racquetball and went to the gym regularly. So Abernathy was up for a physical challenge.

That’s important because luge training takes a serious toll on the body. There’s no mechanical steering or brakes, just your muscles, Abernathy says. She spent hours strengthening her core, back, shoulders, legs and even neck. “There’s no support and you have to hold it up,” explains Abernathy, who used a belt to lift weights with her head.

The other aspect of the sport potential luge athletes need to be prepared for is the danger. Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili died during a training run before the 2010 Winter Games, and although fatalities are rare, injuries from crashing into the walls are common. “Every athlete has a luge tattoo,” Abernathy says, referring to the bruises (and worse) that come with the sport.

It’s also not the easiest activity to do everywhere. (That’s particularly true for Abernathy, whose residence is in St. Thomas: “There isn’t that much ice there other than in drinks.”) Training required her to travel frequently to Lake Placid, N.Y., and tracks across Europe. And although she spent some time practicing starts on ice rinks in the D.C. area, she acknowledges that this region isn’t exactly a prime spot for sharpening luge skills.

For adult Washingtonians hoping to follow a similar path to the Winter Olympics, there’s probably a smarter sport to pick. One possibility: curling.

The oldest athlete representing the United States at the 2014 Games is 45-year-old Ann Swisshelm, a curler. Four years ago, Canadian skip Kevin Martin — whom you may remember as a very bald 43-year-old — led his curling team to the gold. So age isn’t a limiting factor the way it is with many other Olympic events.

Even better, it’s totally doable in the D.C. area, points out Dominique Banville. She’s a board member with the Potomac Curling Club, which operates the National Capital Curling Center in Laurel, where people interested in learning more about the sport can drop by for an open house on Sunday. Several hundred people are expected.

“You look at it and think you can do it,” Banville says. “You see moguls, and you think you can’t.”

The perceptions are somewhat deceiving. “Like any sport that experts do, they make it look easy,” notes Banville, who’s also the director of the Division of Health and Human Performance at George Mason University. “When people compare this to shuffle board, it irritates me.”

Top curlers boast strong legs, backs and triceps to power their sweeping, have the flexibility required to deliver a stone and can keep at it for a three-hour-long game, Banville says. To perform at a high level, you’d need to implement an off-ice workout routine — maybe using some moves from the book “Fit to Curl” by John Morris.

But the most demanding part of a training program is practice, practice, practice. That’s where D.C. area curlers are generally lacking, Banville adds. She has time to hit the rink only once a week, rather than every day. And when her team faces off in bonspiels (a.k.a. curling competitions) with more seasoned players, it’s easy to see the difference.

If Banville were advising someone locally with dreams of becoming a rink star, she’d point out two major hurdles: Coaching opportunities are limited around here, and it’d be tough to find a roster of buddies as committed as you are.

“Throwing rocks can be a lonely thing, and you need feedback,” Banville says. It is, after all, a team sport.

Could someone reading this article be a potential Olympic curler? The only way you’ll find out is to try it, Banville says. Even if you don’t wind up in the running for a silver medal, there’s a silver lining: Unlike luge, it’s a sport you can play for the rest of your life.

Curling Open House: The Potomac Curling Club teaches newbies how to release a rock, sweep a stone and more. Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Gardens Ice House, 13180 Old Gunpowder Rd., Laurel. www.curldc.org. $10, $20 per family.

@postmisfits on Twitter

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

Also at washingtonpost.com Read past columns by Hallett and Lenny Bernstein at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Wednesday.

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