A curling stone and a broom is his last shot at the Olympics

02/18/2014 12:00 AM

02/18/2014 9:00 PM

I’m not tall or particularly strong. I have a normal aversion to great heights and extraneous speed on skis. My balance is ordinary, and I’ve worn glasses since middle school. Nobody is making a Disney movie about the plucky kid from suburban Connecticut. And yet, I have known since I was a boy that I could be in the Olympics. Because I have known that curling is waiting. For those who see curling only once every four years, here’s a quick primer. Think of it as a combination of shuffleboard and bocce on ice. There are two teams, each with four players and eight curling stones. The first to shoot is known as the lead, the second is the second, the third is called the vice-skip and the fourth is the skip. The skip is the captain, responsible for calling out the shots. The other players sweep the ice based on his or her commands. Sweeping can help a shot go farther and straighter by slightly warming the ice and reducing the friction between the stone and the ice. Each team has a designated stone color. Players from opposing teams alternate shots. The goal is to have your team’s stones closest to the button (the bull’s-eye in the scoring area known as the house) at the conclusion of an end — the equivalent of an inning, wherein all eight stones have been thrown. The closest stone to the button gets one point for its team. That team can then score an additional point for each subsequent stone in the house that is closest to the button up until a stone from the other team is the next closest. And so at the age of 35, which is around the age when most dads seem to let themselves go or tighten things up, I’ve decided to see if I have what it takes to curl in the Olympics. “It looks like a guy sitting on the couch eating chips can be an Olympian,” said Bill McBride, the president of the Kansas City Curling Club. “But you need strong legs and a sense of finesse.” I like chips, so that’s a start. It actually doesn’t take much to get on the ice and curl. You need rubber-soled shoes, $25, a signed waiver and one viewing of an instructional video in the weight room of Kansas City’s Line Creek Community Center and Ice Arena. “Curlers play to win, but never to humble their opponents,” says former Olympic curler Mike Peplinski, the star of the video. I silently pledge to be humble in victory. I will instead know humility. The crowd of eight men and women, half of whom are here because of a Groupon and half of whom have binge-watched curling in past Olympics, are instructed to grab a broom and a slider. The sweeping brooms stick out of a gray trash can on wheels like baguettes at a French bakery. The slider is a piece of Teflon that straps onto the bottom of your sneaker and allows your back foot to glide on the ice as your front foot pushes out of the hack, a wedge stuck to the ice that functions like the sprinter’s starting block. The granite stones each weigh 42 pounds and are 11 inches wide, although only 5 inches, what’s called the “running surface,” are in contact with the ice. The first stone I ever curl makes it halfway down the ice. The second goes no farther. There are a lot of directions to keep straight. Your off-hand uses the broom for balance. Your dominant hand must rotate the stone at the last moment before release to determine the direction of the curl. And you have to point your body toward the spot where you want the stone to end up. All of this is also happening on ice. After two hours of curling, I’m an Olympic hopeless. Week 1 — January 12 As I work my way through a gaggle of middle schoolers in hockey equipment, I wonder for the first time in my brief curling gear if I should be wearing a helmet and pads out on the ice. Moments after I walk through the door to the rink, the Zamboni finishes circling and the smooth surface belongs to the KC Curling Club for the next 90 minutes. Two of my three teammates are present. Rob Mikaloff, a calm voice in a Kansas State windbreaker, has been curling for four years. Nate Clevenger, a software engineer in a Cerner T-shirt who gives us our name, “Dark Side of the Broom,” has been at this for 18 months. I confess that I’ve watched the introductory video. Success at curling proves to be a moving target. My shots are short — failing to slide past the hog line, the line on the ice that must be crossed for a shot to be in play. My shots are long, steaming past the back line and out of bounds. Clevenger tweaks my stance, and Mikaloff patiently folds his left hand over his heart to indicate where he wants me to shoot. In the second end, I get a single stone in play and that rises to two stones in the third. “Now the chess game begins,” says Clevenger. We score our first point, and I remember that we’re not just playing, we’re trying to win. In the fourth end, I perfectly/accidentally place a draw behind the other team’s stone (curling my stone gently around theirs). When it’s my turn to sweep, I grip the broom tightly and shuffle my feet down the ice. I’m focused on listening for Clevenger’s call of “sweep” and not touching the stone with my brush (that would render the stone dead). Halfway down the ice, my feet flip out from under me. I have just long enough to think, “This is going to hurt.” Then, I bounce off the slick surface, landing on my broom like a limbo game gone awry. In an effort to get everyone to stop asking if I’m OK after my fall, I ask my teammates how much the ice can impact a shot. The ice on the outside lanes slopes slightly toward the boards that ring the rink, and Mikaloff remembers the early days of the curling club. “When we were at the Pepsi Center, the ice used to be on sand and the stone would just stop at center ice as it warmed,” says Mikaloff. The club used to arrive four hours before it was time to curl at Pepsi Ice Midwest in Overland Park. They’d stack the stones on ice shavings in the Zamboni room, hoping to lower the temperature enough to avoid creating craters on the ice from the heat differential between the granite and frozen water. Now, the stones are kept in a retrofitted freezer that was previously in a pizza shop and cost $5,000 at auction. The stones are brought to the ice on custom carts. There’s concrete under the floor, and we’re on the center track. It’s not the ice. It’s me. We lose 6-3 to Kickin’ Ice. At the far end of the rink after the game, Clevenger hooks his broomstick inside the handles of several stones. He slides the four red stones across the ice. I follow his lead, bend over like a frog and push five blue stones the length of the ice. It turns out I’m good at one thing: cleaning up. My knees burn. My lower back aches where I fell on the broom handle. And here’s what nobody tells you: Your feet sweat like a prom date trying to pin on a corsage. “Well, I made it through without injuring myself,” says a white-haired man as he changes shoes off the ice. That makes one of us, I think to myself. Week 2 — January 19 It’s the second week of the league, and Dark Side of the Broom is at the bottom of the standings. The good news is that we’re only out of first place by a game. The bad news is club president McBride is the skip for our current opponent, the Fantastic Four. McBride started playing when he was 10 years old, when a church member asked if he “wanted to throw rocks on ice.” No 10-year-old boy turns down an opportunity to throw rocks, and McBride curled for several years until the club in Chicago closed. He didn’t play again until a friend brought him to the Crown Center Ice Terrace a decade later in 1995. The first iteration of the curling club folded in 2001 and for two years, McBride commuted to the Omaha Curling Club. It was six hours of driving there and back for four hours of ice time. In 2003, he gathered the members of the old club and restarted the Kansas City Curling Club. I’m beginning to realize this is a sport that requires a higher degree of commitment than I first expected. Clevenger has an upper respiratory infection, so he asks if he can skip to avoid having to sweep. When Mikaloff wonders if I want a promotion to vice skip, I’m speechless. It’s like being asked to serve as vice president in the middle of touring the White House. I beg off, but Mikaloff makes me promise to take on the role the next week. Before we start, a woman with an aluminum shovel collects ice shavings that have collected on the lanes in the wake of the Zamboni. “Does that happen often?” I ask Clevenger. “I’ve never seen it,” he replies. In the third end, I have my first really great shot of the league. It’s a draw, meaning my stone has to curl around a stone from the other team. The stone spins slowly into place, tapping out a second opponent’s stone and coming to rest exactly where Clevenger asked me to place it. Clevenger raises his broom handle — curling’s equivalent of “attaboy.” “What are you, a professional?” asks Mikaloff as he slides by. I get cocky and put my next two stones out of play. My erratic turns and the snowy ice, which makes it difficult to judge speeds, leads to another defeat. We drop the game 7-3 but entered the final end with a chance to taste victory. This time, you could say, we were a stone’s throw away from winning. “We want to have our own ice,” says McBride after the match, as he inputs league fees and payments into a spreadsheet. “Imagine if you could come on a Wednesday night and have a crock of potato soup and then stay afterward to watch a game and a have a beer.” He mentions clubs in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Tempe, Ariz., that are in the process of converting old warehouses into curling clubs. He estimates the KC Curling Club would need to raise around $500,000 to have its own ice. As McBride talks, around 50 parents and siblings seated on aluminum benches cheer or groan at the high school hockey game unfolding on the ice behind him. An hour before, those same benches were empty. The crowds aren’t here for curling. Yet. “During the last Olympics (in 2010), more than 600 people came out to curl and the only reason it wasn’t higher was because we couldn’t get more ice time,” says McBride. Week 3 — January 26 This is why curling is maddening. Eight people have shot a total of 48 stones. And exactly two have landed in the house over the better part of an hour. To make it worse, those two have belonged to our opponents. We’re losing 2-0 to Nordos, a pair of married couples who hail from the Northland and Waldo. “You winning?” asks a curler in the next lane while we’re both waiting to sweep. “No,” I reply. “Well, step it up,” he says, grinning as he glides away. I do. And in the fourth end, I knock out one of the other team’s stones and leave two of mine in scoring position in the house. We end up with four points and the lead. We tack on two points in the next end and another four in the sixth end. We win 10-2, and all I want to do is play again. “We’re no threat to the guys in the Olympics,” says Patrick Weitekamp, our team’s skip for the day, as he takes off his shoes on the bleachers at Line Creek. But we’ve got four more years, right? Week 4 — February 2 My sports priorities are officially all out of whack. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, but my first thought of the day, when my children wake me by bouncing repeatedly on my stomach, is that I might be late for my curling match. My team and our opponents, Sweep Deprived, are just beginning to shake hands and exchange the customary “good curling” greeting. “Good curling” is a wish of good sportsmanship, but for me it has almost become a self-help mantra. Today, Clevenger and I are paired with Wayne Saint Vincent and Ricky Chitwood — two club regulars who give me hope Dark Side of the Broom could be entertaining a winning streak by the end of the day. Saint Vincent leads off, and I slot in second. As the clock dips under 15 minutes, Dark Side of the Broom is on our way to evening up our record. We’re holding a 4-2 lead after four ends. Then, in the fifth and final end, our opponent’s skip has his final throw slide to a stop directly on the button — a bull’s-eye in darts — as the buzzer sounds in the arena. Chitwood slides his foot into the hack and eyes where Clevenger is holding his broom for guidance. He pushes off and lets the stone go. It rotates slowly clockwise as it moves down the ice. I get caught watching it move, forgetting that I have a role in whether or not Chitwood’s shot succeeds. I hear Nate call for sweeping and I set my brush on the ice — trying to stop Chitwood’s shot from losing its line. The stone begins curling right and as it nears the circles of the house, Saint Vincent and I can only watch. The rock slides slowly between the opponent’s stone on the left and their stone on the button. It also passes by the other team’s third rock — sliding out of bounds and taking our lead with it. Sweep Deprived has just scored three points in the sixth and final end, leaving us on the short end of a 5-4 game. As I slide down the ice to grab my slider and a spare broom, Chitwood just stands with his hands on his sides mentally replaying the shot and shaking his head slowly. “What do you call heartbreak in curling?” I asked Saint Vincent. “Losing by one,” he replies. Week 5 — February 9 America’s got curling fever. And the only cure is more curling. The cast of “The Today Show” is learning to curl on the ice at Rockefeller Center when I flip on the television. Their shots keep rolling into the corner, well out of the scoring zone. “It’s not you. This just isn’t curling ice,” says the instructor as I throw on my coat. It’s what my teammates told me to make me feel better in the first few weeks of this experiment. I would crush “The Today Show” cast in a match. Curl Jam and Dark Side of the Broom exchange points for the first four ends of the game. We each manage to put up a point when the other team has the hammer, the final throw of an end. It’s like breaking a serve in tennis, it doesn’t happen that often. The ice is slick, and men are falling out of the hack or after they release the stone like crabbers caught in a storm on “The Deadliest Catch.” I keep my feet but lose my touch. We’re down 4-2 in the sixth and final end. Curl Jam has six stones that could potentially score when Clevenger lines up for the final shot of the game. His stone gently rolls off our opponent’s closest stone and comes to rest in the center of the T-line, the crosshairs in the button. What might have been a 10-2 spanking is instead a 4-3 defeat. This will go down as a loss, but that was some good curling. Week 6 – February 16 I never saw this coming. My first shot doesn’t clear the hog line. I fall to my knees in the second end while trying to avoid kicking a stone in the house. And an argument over sweeping between our Vice-Skip and Second leads to both of them packing up their brooms and going home. Nate and I will be finishing the last four ends as a duo and we’re down 2-1 to Nordos. But with the other team lending us a sweeping hand, Nate and I click. In the sixth and final end, I put four shots exactly where he wants them. And then I’m left to Skip — directing him to put up guards to protect our stone that sits on the button. We win 6-3 without even needing to throw the final shot. “That’s curling,” says Nate. “You figure it out and then it’s time to go home.” The next Olympics are in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. I’ll be 39 years old, which is on the tail end of a curler’s prime. But I could be there — just as long as I can find the money for a plane ticket like everybody else in the stands.

Curling glossary

Back line: The out-of-bounds line behind the house.

Biter: A stone that just touches the outside ring of the house.

Button: The center, or bull’s-eye, of the house.

Draw: A shot where a stone is thrown to a specific spot without taking out another stone.

End: It’s like an inning in baseball with eight stones being thrown by each team. A full-length game is typically 10 ends. The KC Curling club usually has time for six ends with their 90 minutes of ice time.

Hack: The foot-hold that a curler pushes off from when he or she throws a stone down the ice.

Hammer: The team with the final throw of an end has the “hammer.” A team gets the hammer when the other team scores in the previous end.

Hog line: The line a stone has to cross to be considered in play.

House: The set of three concentric circles that are the scoring zone in curling.

Pebble: Water droplets sprayed on the ice that reduce the amount of contact area between the stone and the ice, thus allowing the stone to curl more.

Skip: The final player on a team to shoot. He or she directs teammates on the placement of their shots and strategy.

Slider: A piece of Teflon that straps or slides over your shoe to allow your back foot to glide on the ice when you’re taking a shot.

Takeout: When a stone knocks an opponent’s stone out of play.

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