There are few Olympic sports that make people say, “Hey, I could do that.” And then there’s curling.
To the untrained eye, it looks a lot like shuffleboard, which gets its name from the way enthusiasts of the sport tend to shuffle due to their advanced age. Curling, on the other hand, takes great athleticism and skill, fans of the game will tell you. Their argument is weakened somewhat by their use of cleaning supplies as sports equipment. In fact, during the 2014 Olympics, four janitors with push brooms mistakenly walked onto the curling rink and ended up taking home bronze.
Just kidding. That would never happen, because curlers are easily identified by their pants, which are so densely patterned, they sometimes collapse in on themselves and suck in anyone unlucky enough to be wearing plaid nearby. That — and the fact that after a match, it’s customary for the winning team to buy the losing team a round of drinks — constitutes most of what I know about curling. But that was enough to make me want to give the sport a try.
So when I heard that The Wharf hosts “Curling & Cocktails” each Monday night at its outdoor rink for as long as the weather is favorable, I was the first to sign up for the next event. Literally. I arrived at 6 p.m. — a full 90 minutes before the games began — to make sure I got a spot. That was a smart move, because when I returned at 7:37 p.m., the waiting list was full and would-be curlers were being turned away.
I elbowed my way to the front of the crowd and asked a woman with a clipboard how long it would be until my name was called.
“Sorry,” she said, not looking sorry. “You were supposed to be back at 7:30, and you weren’t here.”
“But I was here at 6,” I whined. The official was unmoved, but my complaining drew the sympathy of the curlers who were up next: Kelly, 24, an occupational therapist, and Josh, 30, who works on Capitol Hill. “Our two friends aren’t here, so you can play with us,” Kelly said.
We needed a fourth player, so we recruited a stray National Public Radio reporter and formed two teams — Reporters vs. Productive Members of Society. I fretted with my fellow journalist that we were going to get crushed by our young, athletic-looking opponents.
“My main goal is not to fall,” she said.
We collected our equipment — two brooms and four “stones,” which are heavy pieces of granite with metal handles attached — and took our spot at one of three courts on the ice. We didn’t get any further instructions, so I went first, gently sliding my stone with my hand in the direction of the target while my teammate smoothed the way with her broom. When my stone stopped short, I lashed out in frustration. “Sweep harder next time!” I shouted.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing,” my sweeper replied.
I later discovered that all the people wielding brooms at The Wharf that evening were pretty much there for show. Unlike our rink, real curling rinks are sprayed with water, which freezes into “pebbles” that make the surface rougher. Sweepers strategically smooth the ice in front of the stone to control its path. Often, they stop smoothing just as the stone reaches the target, causing it to slow down and curl into exactly the right spot. The Wharf’s rink, however, was smooth as glass, which meant that my sweeper had exactly the same amount of control over the stone’s path as the people yelling from the sidelines.
Up next, Josh sent his stone sliding nicely onto the target. His triumph was short-lived, however, because I sent my stone careening into his. Team Reporters ended up winning that round 1-0 and — more importantly — we looked good doing it.
Meanwhile, the curlers at the next court over were attempting to shove their stones with their brooms, a clearly illegal move.
“Come on!” a heckler yelled from the sidelines. “Haven’t you ever watched curling on TV?”
“No, I haven’t!” one of the errant curlers replied defensively.
Not everyone was clueless. One group of men delivered their stones with such grace and authority, they attracted the attention of the clipboard lady.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” she said.
“We’re firemen,” one guy replied, as if that explained anything.
At the end of our match, Reporters were tied with Productives 2-2. At least, that’s what I thought.
“I wasn’t keeping track, but I’m pretty confident that we destroyed you,” Josh claimed.
I was fine with that interpretation, because it meant that he and Kelly owed us drinks. Unfortunately, they disappeared before I could tell them about that crucial curling tradition, so I bought one for myself and spent another hour watching other teams play. By the time I headed home for the night, it was clear that curling — or whatever you call the approximation that happens at The Wharf — is my new favorite game. I can’t wait to go shopping for some dangerous new pants.
More adventures with the Staycationer