By Craig Wilson,
It's not the
sexiest sport on ice. Figure skating is more
elegant. Hockey is more exciting.
And as first-year
player Lisa Dahline of St. Paul says, "It's much
better to play than to watch."
But the ancient
sport of curling, in which you slide a 42-pound
granite stone down the ice while teammates sweep
furiously to help it glide along, is gaining
converts faster than the men here at the St.
Paul Curling Club can down their brews.
So quirky it's
suddenly cool, curling is the hottest thing on
ice these days. So hot that the West Metro
Curling Club is being formed on the edge of the
Twin Cities, because the venerable wood-paneled
St. Paul Curling Club, founded almost 100 years
ago, can't house everyone. The club's membership
has topped out near 1,000.
"It's all indicative
of the growth of curling nationwide since the
2002 Olympics," says Rick Patzke of the United
States Curling Association in Stevens Point,
Wis. (Half of the USA's 16,000 curlers live in
Wisconsin or Minnesota, although even Florida
boasts a club.)
hasn't reached the status here that it has long
enjoyed in Canada — where 1.2 million curl every
winter — it's on the rise, especially in the
northern climes. It's long been the sport of
choice in smaller towns of the upper Midwest,
where winter entertainment is hard to come by.
Membership in USA
Curling (usacurl .org) increased 10% last
season, and the association recently added 11
clubs from Arizona to Tennessee. Several more
are pending. There are 135 curling clubs
Widely exposed at
the Winter Olympics in 2002 after making its
debut in Nagano in 1998, curling has caught on.
NBC's Ice 2003 program, which included
curling's Continental Cup tournament, drew about
7 million viewers. The figure, posted the same
day as Saddam Hussein's capture and a full slate
of NFL games, was higher than many NHL telecasts
Those who have swept
curling's "sheets of ice" (the competition
lanes) for decades are a bit bemused. Long ago,
they figured out that curling was the best of
"What you find out
is that about the third year you start
understanding how complicated the game really
is," says Jim "Dex" Dexter, the affable manager
of the St. Paul club. "To get good at it is a
10- to 15-year deal. It's all about strategy,
the reading of the ice."
It's not just any
ice. Curling ice is described as feeling like
orange peels. The stone rides the pebbles. The
sweeping slightly melts the ice, reducing
friction, which lets the stone curl less and
The goal of the game
in a nutshell: to glide the stone into the
scoring area, which looks like a bull's-eye. For
each stone closest to the center, one point is
The eight "sheets of
ice" at the St. Paul club were full on a recent
Friday — it's the height of the curling season,
which runs the winter months. Leagues play
two-hour rounds before heading upstairs for
dinner and drinks.
The scene is
reminiscent of a bowling alley on a league
night, people peering down through second-floor
windows to the action below. Although one North
Dakota curler told Sports Illustrated
last month that the sport was "a cross between
shuffleboard, bowling and New Year's Eve," don't
say that to curling aficionados.
"Don't say the
b-word in a curling club," Dexter says. "There's
a lot more skill to being a good league curler
than a bowler. A lot more thinking is involved."
It's also a game in
which women are equal to men. Men might have
more upper-body strength, but women often sweep
better. The other good thing is you can curl way
into old age.
Curling, which began
in Scotland in the 16th century, is all about
"It's the only sport
where you sit down with the opposing team
afterward and socialize," says veteran curler
Jim Bata, a business analyst for Northwest
"If you want to have
a good time and play a game, this is it," Dexter
says. "The social part is very, very much a part
Curlers concede that
the social part, the drinking, was almost all
of the sport in the early years. But the game
has become more co-ed, more family-oriented,
more of a game of skill and less of an excuse to
just drink yourself silly on a cold Minnesota
Curlers, more than
anything else these days, have the reputation of
being nice people. Your neighbor. Your plumber.
Your bank president.
cheeks were rosy from the 42 degrees at which
the competition arena is kept at the St. Paul
club. (The ice surface is 24.5 degrees.)
"I knew some people
who curled, and they were all nice," says
the first-year curler and computer programmer
from Egan, Minn. "You can be competitive in this
sport and still be nice."
Not that the game
can't prove frustrating. "It's no secret that
Scotland gave us golf, curling and
Scotch," she says.
There are dozens of
variables, from the delivery to the ice to just
plain luck. Like chess, which it is often
compared to, curling is a thinking man's game.
What helps is the
old curling rule that the winner has to pay for
the first round of drinks.
Mark Lusche, 57, a
truck driver from Becker, Minn., has been
curling for 20 years. "I like to win. But it's
the camaraderie thing that brought me in."
He also likes the
idea that you get to play with everyone.
"You can go to a
weekend tournament and be with world-caliber
players," he says. "It's not like you can go to
a tennis court and have a pickup game with
Lusche even lured
his wife, Jean, into curling, signing her up
without even asking. She wasn't amused at first.
"I said, 'Curling? That's not me.' "
Now she's hooked.
"You walk into a curling club, and you're part
of the gang immediately."
Allison Pottinger, a
member of Team USA, the reigning world
champions, curls at St. Paul, right along with
Jean and Mark Lusche. She practices there most
every evening, often as late as 11.
champions, but even then there's always
something new to learn in curling. It's a great
combination of individual skills and teamwork,"
says Pottinger, 30, who has been curling since
elementary school. "There's just so much touch
and feel to it."
Pottinger will be
heading north to Grand Forks, N.D., for the USA
Curling National Championships on Feb. 28. If
she wins there, it's on to defending her world
title in Sweden in April.
Not that it's only
those in the northern climes who have all the
The Florida Curling
Club in Ellenton held its first bonspiel (a
curling tournament) last March. It already has
more than 50 members.
"We're trying to get
past the novelty aspect of it down here," says
Erik Lebsack, 30, an options trader who heads up
the club near Sarasota. "The problem here is
there's more to do than just curl. Back in St.
Paul, it's your life. Here, you can golf."
But Lebsack says a
team from Scotland came to play in the first
bonspiel last year, and the members want to come
back. "People think it's fun to curl in shorts."
St. Paul's Jim Bata
isn't wearing shorts this night. He's opting for
his traditional long black trousers, extending
his right leg back as he glides and releases the
stone. He has one of the most elegant deliveries
at the club and looks almost as if he's doing
ballet. His glide is helped by the Teflon
slipper that a curler wears on the left foot.
"A lot of people
don't think it's a sport, but it's extremely
strenuous. It's like a chess game on ice," says
Bata, 44, of suburban Woodbury, who has been
playing since he was 11.
say it raises the heart rate at a fast clip when
"It's a lot more
cardiovascular than you think it is," Dexter
says. In a typical game, a curler walks almost 2
It also helps to
"There aren't (a lot
of ) things a husband and wife can do together,"
says Denise Nelson, a real estate agent from
White Bear Lake who curls with her husband, Bob.
"To be honest, in the beginning, the scoring
doesn't even make sense. But then it all kind of
It did for Tim
Walior and Barb Anderson, both 39, of nearby
Anderson, who works
for American Express, has been curling for 10
years. Walior, a computer technician, knew the
game only from the Olympics.
When they first met,
"I was surprised he even knew what it was," she
But he did. And now
he plays. And now they're engaged.