Curling, the best Olympic sport you don't understand

By Rachel Dry
Sunday, February 14, 2010

I'm in position in the hack, staring down more than 100 feet of ice to my target. Right hand on the 42-pound stone, giving it a tiny test spin. Focused. Ready to curl.

This is what I am thinking: Please don't let me fall this time. If I do fall, please don't let anyone laugh at me. And if I fall and then, while scrambling around on the ice in an attempt to stand, I fall again, please don't let the 13-year-old girl who is leading our team smile at me and say: "Better! It was better this time!"

When Stephen Dropkin takes to the ice, his inner monologue is a little different, I imagine. He's the skip, or leader, of the team that represented the eastern region at the junior nationals three weeks ago. Dropkin, 19, was in Laurel with his teammates the week before nationals for a practice bonspiel, or tournament.

"It's when I'm most confident in myself," he said, describing what it's like when he is curling. "It's one area where I don't need to feel that I need to be somebody else or something. It makes me feel like me. I feel right sliding down the ice."

I'm not quite there yet. I also can't traverse the ice sheet on one foot, sliding backward, like he can. Stephen and I do have this in common, though: We both think curling is awesome. In the 12 years since it debuted as a medal sport in modern Olympic competition, more people have discovered this indisputable fact.

But not enough people. USA Curling's chief operating officer, Rick Patzke, said the group has about 15,000 members now, up from around 10,000 before curling got its big Olympic break in Nagano in '98.

It may never be as huge as other ice sports. Part of its charm is that it isn't. It's quirky and weird and the athletes use brooms. They propel large rocks down the ice toward a bull's-eye-type target. It is kind of like shuffleboard on ice, though curlers have mixed feelings about that particular analogy.

The people in charge of the sport in this country appear to be capitalizing on its punch-line potential. After one particularly grim budget meeting last summer, Patzke recalls, USA Curling officials joked about raising money by selling condoms. Now, they have actually launched Hurry Hard condoms, named for a common exhortation to the sweepers to "hurry hard" down the sheet. There's a promotion with Laphroaig Islay single-malt Scotch whisky, to reflect the sport's Scottish heritage. On tonight's episode of "The Simpsons," Homer and Marge compete in a round of mixed doubles. And Stephen Colbert took to the ice at the Plainfield Curling Club in New Jersey this winter.

All this in the run-up to the Olympics, curling's once-every-four-years shot at national television viewership and heightened glory. The competition begins Tuesday, and Patzke says that while both teams are strong, it will be an uphill battle for the men's team, with just one member of the '06 bronze-medalist squad back for Vancouver.

I wish they didn't have to try quite so hard. I've come to the conclusion that curling embodies a special kind of Olympic ideal. It's exactly the kind of sport that the International Olympic Committee should be adding to the Games' roster. Most of the winter sports that graduated from "demonstration" to medal events in the past decade are of the thrill-seeking variety, not based on decades of a specific cultural tradition: ski cross (debuting this year), snowboarding and skeleton, for instance. I like a flawless Flying Tomato performance as much as the next Olympic fan, but curling is different. And better.

Curling is not faster, higher or stronger, in the traditional, mind-boggling Olympian sense of those terms. It's accessible-er. Which means you can watch the best in the world compete and then make your way onto the ice yourself. That's what I did, anyway.

I am not an athlete. Somewhere in my childhood home there is a shoebox full of Vermont state swimming championship ribbons to prove this, the lime green of 17th place, the blood-orange of having been a "participant." But with curling here is what you get for being a participant: a few early bruises; a solid cardiovascular workout; a connection to Scottish culture that is generally otherwise available only in kilt or single-malt form; and entree into a group of genuinely kind and enthusiastic people, a number of whom are Canadian expats -- which makes sense but is a nice stereotype to see reinforced.

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