Have you ever run up and down your hallway mopping every miniscule stain on the floor as if your life depended on it and your pants were on fire? No? Then you’ve never been a sweeper in a game of curling. I found this out recently after learning that my cousin had joined a league in her neighbourhood. She suggested I try it.
‘What do you like about curling?’ I asked Barb, who is in her early 50s, and also plays golf.
‘It’s a fun way to hang out on a Sunday afternoon in winter,’ she said. ‘You can have a hot chocolate and Grand Marnier after you’ve swept your heart out.’ Not literally, one assumes.
It turns out that curling is a difficult sport to simply fall into. It’s not like there are intro classes at the YWCA. Fortunately, every year, more than 1,000 clubs in Canada’s towns and cities offer clinics for newcomers. This enables you to go out and do an immediate face plant on the ice without screwing up a game in progress.
I arrived for my first lesson at Toronto’s High Park Club on an unseasonably warm fall day, sporting a T-shirt and wishing I had shorts on. In the club’s genteel lounge, a number of women were milling about waiting for their Thursday game to begin’and wearing gloves and fleece jackets. As they knew, once you get out on the ice, the air is bracingly frigid.
The lounge featured viewing windows looking onto a five-‘sheet’ rink roughly the size of a bowling alley. The other wall of windows faced the tennis lawn, which brought to mind Victorian England. The club, almost a century old, has a fabulous great-auntie feel, with its card tables, and trophies in display cases. It made me want to drink Canada Dry and play bridge.
The typical curling club is outfitted in this manner’with sofas and a fully stocked bar’because after the game, tradition holds that the winners buy the losers a drink, followed by the losers buying the winners drinks. I note, from a history of the sport posted by the Canadian Curling Association, that at the first game held in Winnipeg’considered by many to be the epicentre of curling’the losers had to donate a barrel of oatmeal to a local hospital. The idea of winning or losing having a sporting, sociable sort of consequence is one of curling’s signature charms.
Abbie Darnley, the club’s manager, came to escort me onto the ice for my lesson. She is 27, and has been curling since she was six. Over the years, she said, she converted her entire family to the sport, so holiday dinners are now filled with talk of strategies and shots.
Abbie gave me a curling broom, and then wrapped my left shoe with tape, as a DIY substitute for the curling shoe. Depending on the position you’re playing, you want to either slide like a kid across the ice, or run with swift, mincing steps in gripping shoes as you sweep in front of the stone. To this end, curlers buy shoes with removable slippery soles.
Armed with my broom and treacherous shoe, I followed Abbie past the assembling teams of chatting ladies to Sheet 5. Here were a set of starting blocks, like the ones sprinters use, except that in curling they’re called hacks. And, whereas sprinters place both hands on firm ground as they crouch in the blocks and await the starter’s gun, curlers must grab a giant kettle-shaped rock (weighing up to 44 pounds) in one hand, and a broom in the other, and prepare to shoot over a sheet of ice, one foot sliding forward and the other dragging behind, as if enacting a sprinter’s anxiety dream about everything that could possibly go wrong in a race.
I don’t know how the Scots came up with this idea 500 years ago, but for me it took lots of coordination just to get started. I practised several times under Abbie’s cheerful supervision. The trick was to shift weight from the pushing foot to the sliding foot while using the broom as a brace and letting go of the rock. This is not unlike a hog learning to juggle.
Nevertheless, after a good deal of mishap, I got the basic idea, and could fully appreciate how effective this would be at stretching and toning one’s legs. For teams doing two-hour sessions, that’s a lot of crouching and sliding. What I couldn’t get was the curling part. As you slide the rock toward the target (or ‘house’), you’re meant to twist its handle, then release it, in the manner of pitching a curveball. Abbie demonstrated with deft skill. But for me, this was one too many moves for a body to master in one afternoon. ‘It’s remarkably hard,’ agreed my cousin. ‘The first clinic I went to, my legs hurt for a week.’
Everyone on a typical four-person team (or ‘side’) takes turns sliding the rock toward the house, and sweeping in the vicinity of that rock. This, of course, is the iconic image of curling that makes non-players raise their eyebrows in amusement. There is something inherently silly-looking about brushing ice madly with a household cleaning implement.
But it entails much strategy. The ‘skip,’ or team captain, must read the speed and accuracy of the rock as it moves, and make split-second decisions about how much sweeping is needed to smooth the surface and propel the rock while finessing its direction. It seems to me there must be as many complex plays as you’d find in chess, in terms of knocking out your opponents’ stones, or deking around them, or positioning yourself for later play by putting a stone in place to ‘guard’ another. ‘Sweeping takes years to get good at,’ my cousin allowed. Meantime, your arms get one heck of a workout.
Curling is a demandingly strategic and deeply eccentric sport, in my opinion. I would consider joining a team, if it consisted of close friends; this sport is highly sociable, and would make a great girls’ night out. Indeed, if you wanted to try curling, I’d suggest you bring a trio of friends to that first clinic. Because if you’re like me, to get going in this game, there needs to be laughter‘and low expectations that you’ll be a natural.
This article was originally titled "Me, a natural-born curler?" in the March/April 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.