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Rock the House With a Rock in the House — I Think

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 16, 1998; Page C1


KARUIZAWA, Japan — The cold has turned my brain to mush. This has to be the case because I am watching curling. On Sunday morning at 9 a.m., no less.

The idea of getting on a train and going to Olympic curling was to explain to you, dear reader, why we should all at least give curling a chance.

One small problem: After 2 ½ hours of watching not only the men's bronze medal match but also the women's bronze medal match, I have absolutely no idea what I saw.

Or what I've heard. These are actual words that came from the mouth of U.S. team skip Tim Somerville: "We just couldn't rub Japan's yellow rock," he said. "Otherwise it would have spun out and it would have been shot rock. It was one of those things, you just have to hope your guy in the house is calling the angle right, because if it comes up too far it will roll out and if it stays out too far it rubs the yellow one and we lose. It had to be perfect."

The rock? The house? Is this guy on Dick Vitale pills?

In case you hadn't heard, Somerville's delicate tap enabled the U.S. to beat Japan by a half-inch in a tiebreaker the other night. But the emotion of that victory was just too, too much for the Yanks, and they succumbed meekly not only to Canada in the semifinals, but to Norway in Sunday's bronze medal game. The score was 9-4 and the game was called after nine ends (there are 10 ends, which are sort of like innings) when the U.S. team just conceded. No mas.

I guess you just don't see five-rock rallies every day, even though the United States put three rocks in the house in the sixth. I tried my best to catch the nuances of how you put three rocks in the house in one end but was distracted big-time by the Swedes (rooting for their women's team to beat the British side on a sheet of ice five feet away) who were singing at the top of their lungs — and I quote — "Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate? Sweden! Sweden! Sweden! Yeeeeaaaaahhh!".

Somerville was asked if the three-spot in the sixth that got the United States within 6-3 gave him hope of a big American comeback. He said after much thought, "Not really."

Somerville, you should know, says he's the groundskeeper of an insurance building near downtown Minneapolis. He doesn't appear to be a cheery sort.

Asked what it means for U.S. curling at least to reach the medal game, Somerville thought again and said, "That's something I can't tell you."

Asked if being on television will help the sport of become more popular in the United States, Somerville got downright wordy and explained. "I don't know that either. ... It's a hard sport to explain to someone on the street."

No lie.

After reading up, talking to as many curling experts as possible, and pumping Somerville for the priceless insight gleaned from the above quotes, here's what I think I learned about curling Sunday:

It's played on a 146-foot sheet of ice, with what appears to be two large bull's-eyes at each end, 125 feet apart. Two teams of four go back and forth trying to slide what looks like a 42-pound granite jug (the rock) into the 12-foot bull's-eye (the house). An end (the inning) consists of four rocks (the act of sliding the stone down the ice) per team. The stone is controlled and directed not by touching it, but by a couple of guys who frantically broom the ice in front of the rock to the point the ice melts, thereby speeding up and/or straightening the rock. A good broomer, they say, can give a team as much as 15 extra feet on a throw.

What am I saying?

This is the weirdest thing you've ever seen in your life, although if you have a life you'll never see a minute of it. Except if you live in Wisconsin or Minnesota, and your big choices for a Friday night are bowling or curling. It was kinda cool in a perverse way, though. Curling has elements of bowling (or billiards) in that you have to work the angles and create collisions to knock the other guy's rock out of the house, so as to leave your own there and could ultimately earn you a point.

And strangely enough, you can play defense. While your rock is sliding into the house, the other guy can help it slide you right out of the house with some pretty clutch sweeping himself. And all the while, you've got people hovering over this rock screaming like cavemen. I'm quite sure you're taking notes on this.

I felt bad for the curlers at one point because right in the middle of play — and folks treat this stuff like a tennis match — some CBS announcer sits down and decides to tape his "voice over." The guy has a set of pipes like Pavarotti and he just belts out, "EMOTIONS WILL BE RUNNING HIGH IN KARUIZAWA TODAY AS ... " about four or five times until he got it, um, right. The curlers, clearly annoyed, controlled themselves admirably.

Curling might be easy to make fun of, but there was one guy, an American, whose participation here was no joke. His name is Michael Peplinski and he's a 24-year-old from LaCrosse, Wis., who is one of the most inspirational athletes of these Games. Peplinski, a teacher in Eau Claire, will have a kidney transplant, in May or June at the University of Minnesota.

He felt a little tired at the end of a back-to-back set, but said for the most part he feels fine. With their competition over, his teammates might have been bolting for home, but Peplinski was staying. "I'm going into Nagano for the week," he said. "I'd like to stay in the village and enjoy the Olympic atmosphere. This has been a great cover for me. I guess [the transplant operation] will weigh on my mind now more than it has, now that being in the Olympics won't take up all of my attention."

Peplinski didn't receive any monetary compensation for competing here, and he'd lost a chance to win an Olympic bronze medal minutes earlier. Someone asked if the circumstances of his life make him see all this differently and he said, "If you're referring to my kidney ... I know people show things in different ways, but I thought I took this game harder than anybody else. ... I'm going to try to enjoy the moment more than anybody else. That's what this is all about, isn't it?"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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