Don’t bother telling Joe Rockenbach your curling jokes. He’s heard them all.
As president of his local curling club, Rockenbach has listened to people tell him that curling is not a real sport. Or about how curlers must be skilled house cleaners because their sport involves sweeping.
Those comments used to irk Rockenbach, a 37-year-old Philadelphia native, but he’s seen the game humble enough people that now the slights slide right off.
“Almost anybody who comes into it with the attitude of, ‘This is nothing, I got this,’ when they get off the ice, [they say], ‘this was way different than what I expected,’ ” Rockenbach said, “and they’ll gain a lot more respect for the game.”
Tucked away in a small corner rink at the Gardens Ice House in Laurel, Md., Rockenbach and others at the nonprofit Potomac Curling Club welcomed media members Monday morning for an information session in preparation for the expected spike in interest leading up to the Winter Olympics next month in PyeongChang. About a dozen media members were in attendance to get footage and also try their hand at the sport that is referred to by some as “chess on ice” for the cerebral nature of the game.
Curling remains largely a novelty in the United States and its athletes often feel the need to defend themselves against silly jokes or insults, but there are signs that the Olympic interest has had lasting positive effects. Potomac Curling Club, which is the only organization with a rink solely for curling in the Washington area, gained and retained about 60 new members during the last Olympic cycle, according to Rockenbach. And as the sport grows, the respect will come, club members hope.
“It’s not there yet but it’s certainly improving,” Rockenbach said. “There’s more money in top level events, purses are getting bigger and we’re getting more competitive players out of the U.S. … I’m really interested to see what happens in next Olympic cycle or two.”
The goal of the game is to get more 40-pound granite stones close to the center (the “button”) of a circular target on the ice (the “House), than the opposing team. Curling involves two teams made up of four players: the lead, the second, the third (or vice) and the skip.
Teams alternate taking shots during which a player is either sliding a stone (two stones per player), sweeping the ice in front of the stone or watching the action from the house.
To some it might look like the easiest path to the Olympics, but talk to any competitive curler, and they’ll tell you about the many misconceptions about the sport: No, the players don’t use skates; yes, it’s much more difficult than it looks on television. And while there is certainly a social aspect to the sport, like bowling, elite curlers are serious about their fitness.
“A lot of strength comes from the core. If you have good core, you have good balance,” said 21-year-old Hunter Clawson, who is ranked internationally. “Leg workouts are important for driving out and making the big weight takeout shots, and the sweepers are putting a lot of weight on the upper body.”
Clawson isn’t your average weekend curler. Tall and slim, he looks every bit like the former high school varsity lacrosse player he was at River Hill High in Clarksville.
Growing up, Clawson also participated in myriad “niche sports” that his father, Eric, introduced him to, including white-water kayaking, rock climbing, badminton and karate.
But it was curling that stuck. Clawson joined the Potomac Curling Club in 2008 and has become one of the club’s most accomplished curlers since it was founded in 1961. He was part of the United States team that finished third at the Olympic Trials men’s event in November. Some members believe that Clawson could be the club’s first Olympian.
“He is very focused, very precise and willing to put in the work required to get there,” said Clawson’s father. “He’s very dedicated both in fitness and in the actual sport of curling, in terms of strategy. He’s watching the game and coming out to practices.”
Clawson’s younger brothers, 20-year-old Caleb, who represented Team USA in the 2017 Mixed World Championships and 17-year-old Eli, are also high-level curlers.
The curling insults don’t really bother Clawson. He knows he’s an athlete. But he wishes that the sport were on television more often. During the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, an eye-popping 5 million people watched curling coverage on various channels in one day.
By having more curling on the air, Clawson reasons, more people would be exposed to the sport and maybe even understand it, including those who joke with Clawson that he must be great at cleaning his house. (For those wondering, he says he’s not.)
“The only thing that bothers me about those comments is that we haven’t done enough to educate America about the sport,” Clawson said. “There’s a lot of interest in the sport and we just have to make that connection between the sport and the people interested in it.”