LONDON, Ontario — American curling champion Tabitha Peterson has heard it all: Anyone can curl. My grandmother can curl. The Swiffer sport. Housekeeping comes to the Winter Games.
“Everyone thinks they can go to the Olympics in curling because they think it’s so easy,” she says, shaking her ponytail. She’s sitting in a nearly empty banquet room in a western Ontario ice arena, dressed in gym clothes, which would be curling attire.
Peterson, 28, is heading to the Olympics for the first time after playing for almost two decades, because that’s how long it takes to make curling look easy.
A sport played on ice with a 42-pound stone and a broom — which, yes, resembles a Swiffer, a $200 Swiffer — curling has long been the Rodney Dangerfield of the Olympics. Until very recently, the game, which is both exciting and, well, weird, never got much respect.
“People think the sport is so cool, so interesting,” says U.S. women’s team member Aileen Geving, 30, “or that it’s just dumb. It’s one or the other.”
Despite its inclusion in the first Winter Games in 1924, curling wasn’t sanctioned as a medal sport for nearly three-quarters of a century, until 1998, the first year women competed.
It has made few players Apolo Ohno-famous, and none of them rich. Endorsements are few. “It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to travel and do our sport,” says Nina Roth, 29, the skip (that is, captain) of the U.S. Women’s team, who is charged with yelling instructions, such as “Sweep!,” and guiding strategy. “Some years were in the minus column.”
The four-member women’s team had to purchase their navy Nike tops at the U.S. Olympic trials. (C’mon, Nike.)
So Peterson kept her day job as a pharmacist rotating through multiple Targets throughout the Twin Cities area, training during lunch, before and after work and on weekends.
She returned to a pharmacy the Monday after winning the trials. “My co-workers were going to put up decorations, but they ran out of time,” she says. “So they just handed me the streamers.”
The women’s team, all first-time Olympic contenders, also includes a long-term acute-care nurse (Roth), an insurance account executive (Geving), and a Dick’s Sporting Goods sales associate (Becca Hamilton). There’s also an alternate, Cory Christensen.
“I sharpen skates. I steam gloves. I do it all,” says Hamilton, 27. She will also compete in PyeongChang, South Korea, in the debut of Olympic mixed doubles with her older brother. Matt Hamilton, 28, is a member of the men’s team and a ham at heart, USA Curling’s potential breakout media darling. Which could make him a first.
Curlers rarely merit those up-close-and-personal Olympic bios accompanied by tinkling piano. They tend to be middle-class residents of the upper Midwest, fit but not freakishly so. They don’t come with extraordinary backstories, outsize personalities or harrowing tales of near career-ending injuries. They don’t get injuries.
Curlers’ lives don’t lend themselves to melodrama. They lend themselves to pharmacy.
Curling looks simple, but don't be fooled.
Play begins with an almost-balletic slide by one player that sends the stone skimming down a sheet of pebbled ice to the target. Prodigious sweeping by other team members creates friction to control and speed the stone's curling (get it?) trajectory. Physical strength and nimble footwork — the curlers are wearing sneaker-like shoes on ice — are combined with intense strategy to displace opponents' stones in the house, the bull's eye of four concentric rings.
“You need balance and core strength for sliding, and you need the smarts to do strategy,” says Hamilton, who sports a substantial bruise on her right arm from applying much of her full body weight while sweeping.
“People try it the first time,” Peterson says, “then they can’t stand up the next day.”
The game is centuries old and steeped in tradition. The 1565 Bruegel landscape “Hunters in the Snow” depicts what appears to be Flemish folk curling. The Scots have been playing since the 16th century. They’re mad for the game. Most stones used worldwide originate from Ailsa Craig, a volcanic, puffin-inhabited speck of an island off Scotland’s western coast.
The Canadians are curling monsters. The nation thrives on ice and is home to 1,000 curling clubs, where players train from age 10 or younger. The United States, where the sport is gaining popularity, has 170.
“Every small town in Canada, if it has a church, it also has a curling club. The winters here, what are you going to do?” says Canadian Al Hackner, a.k.a. “The Iceman,” who led a world championship team in 1982 and 1985. Bonspiels, or curling tournaments, are a way of life.
For Canadians, the sport is drenched in meaning and comes with its own culture. After a game, the teams shake hands before the winners celebrate. The victors treat their opponents to beer. Which is so not American.
“We want curling to be what we are,” says University of Ottawa cultural historian Sean Graham. “We like to believe we’re a communal, genial, gracious nation, and we can point to curling as an example.”
Except for the very first year it was included in the Games, Canada has always medaled in the sport. Always.
The United States, with 10 times the population, mostly has not.
“The wins at the last Olympics were not a lot,” says Geving, in a masterstroke of Minnesotan understatement.
American women have never medaled. Sochi (2014) and Vancouver (2010) were outright debacles. The women’s team finished 10th both times.
There are only 10 teams.
In South Korea, where their competition begins Feb. 14, the women are, to put it mildly, profound underdogs.
The American men have performed almost as poorly and have medaled only once, in 2006.
Says Roth: “There’s been such a small pool of elite athletes who have had the resources to break out of that mediocrity.”
The women feel the need to reverse history and the pressure to medal. “We don’t want to [soil] the bed and get 10th again,” says Peterson, although using an earthier verb.
Toward that goal, USA Curling accelerated its High Performance Program four years ago, assembling teams based on strength and compatibility rather than proximity to clubs: Peterson and Geving are from Minnesota, Hamilton and Roth from Wisconsin. The program hired a sports psychologist and ramped up physical training. In the past, curlers were “lumpy, bumpy, whatever,” says Hackner, who coaches the women’s team. Now, they work out constantly.
The women have since beaten “five out of the six top women’s teams in the world,” says Hackner. “That’s never happened.”
More prominent television exposure at the last two Winter Games has helped curling transition from an oddity to a thing. During the Vancouver Games, competition aired on CNBC, the money channel, and became a sleeper hit on Wall Street.
This year, curling coverage will air on NBCSN, CNBC and the USA Network. There are no plans to broadcast any of it on prime-time NBC along with the marquee sports of figure skating, Alpine skiing or luge.
“Curling has always fought an image of not being sexy. Okay? It’s just not sexy,” says the stentorian-voiced Vic Rauter, the Al Michaels of Canadian curling. For 32 years, he has called play-by-play on TSN, the Canadian ESPN.
But as a curiosity, curling attracts a dedicated audience of its own.
Recently, the sport has acquired pop-culture cred. Its very uncoolness, the lack of glamour and the under-the-radar personalities, has made it hip. Diddy curled as brand ambassador for Ciroc vodka. During the NFC championship, the Minnesota Vikings simulated curling in an end-zone celebration after their sole touchdown. Cheetos, an Olympic sponsor, has created a YouTube “Teach Me How to Curl” commercial, with Redskins tight end Vernon Davis and the Hamilton siblings.
Here in Ontario’s London, a city of graying Alpine snow banks that will never be confused with its British namesake, the Americans were competing in the Continental Cup, the penultimate competition before the Olympics.
They played on Team North America with the mighty and top-ranked Canadians, against Team World, which consisted of pretty much everyone else, including the vocal and fearless Japanese women and the hot-dogging Norwegian men, celebrated for their flamboyant pants and occasional stripping of same, tied to an endorsement deal with the underwear brand Comfyballs. (Who says curling’s not sexy?)
Between play (games are long, running almost three hours), patrons repaired to the fan zone, which featured karaoke, a British Invasion cover band, carb-saturated buffets and Caesars, Canada’s version of the Bloody Mary. Olympians conducted meet-and-greets drinking tall boys of beer. The experience was akin to a landlocked, ice-themed cruise.
After four days of rigorous play, the tournament ended in a torrent of excitement. Team North America won in a shootout after a tie on points. Every member of the winning team, including the American women, collected $2,000 in Canadian currency (about $1,620 U.S.).
After the Olympics, Peterson hopes for “a grace period. I kind of want to do travel not associated with curling.”
Then, no matter the outcome in PyeongChang, she’ll return to work, rotating through Target stores in the Twin Cities, assisting patients and filling scripts.