Wednesday, January 11, 2006

New to Curling, read this article.

Reporter makes clean sweep of odd-duck sport By Ann Tatko CONTRA COSTA TIMES

Posted on Thu, Jan. 05, 2006 Contra Costa Newspapers 2640 Shadelands Drive Walnut Creek, CA 94598

The Winter Olympics are all about the thrill of the games. The breakneck speed of downhill skiing. The soaring majesty of the 120-meter ski jump. The slam-bang drama of hockey.Then there's curling.

A cross between bocce and shuffleboard, curling is played with heavy stones on ice. The game is simple: two four-person teams slide their stones to the opposite end of the ice, blocking and knocking out each other's stones as they aim for the center of a circle.

Captivating, it isn't, or so I thought until my father called while I was covering the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"Where's the curling?" he asked almost daily.

Turns out my 6-foot-3, football-loving father had developed a keen interest in the Winter Games' most odd-looking and yet oddly appealing sport -- which NBC seemingly never aired, according to the TV Guide listings.

I was amused by my father's interest in curling, so much so that I found myself giving it a closer look, although still discreetly. After all, this was a sport of big rocks, brooms and tournaments known as bonspiels.

I just didn't get it.

Then, the U.S. women's Olympic curlers baited reporters at the 2006 Olympic Media Summit in Colorado Springs, Colo., to come try the sport firsthand.

Devious, I thought. To decline was to show blatant ignorance. To accept was to risk potential ridicule.

Who knew ridicule could be so cold and bumpy.

Curling, unlike hockey and figure skating, is staged on pebbled ice, which helps the propelled stone to curl -- or move. It's believed the sport began in 16th-century Scotland, where the only quarry exists that produces the rare granite stones.

A pack of two dozen reporters waddled across the ice for a 10-minute briefing on how to curl, appropriately conducted by a Scotsman, whose kilt and accent added a little authenticity to the night. "Usually, you would need a whole weekend to learn how to curl," he explained.

Great, I thought, we get the "Cliff Notes" version.

Lesson one: Don't try to pick up the 42-pound stone unless hernia surgery sounds like fun. When you "throw" the stone, it actually just slides across the ice.

Lesson two: Release the stone before the first hog line (21 feet from the start) and get it past the second hog line (21 feet from the finish). Or, in simpler terms, let the stone go and pray it moves.

Lesson three: If you're a sweeper, the object is to brush the ice, creating a thin film of water to reduce friction and allow the stone to move into the house -- a round scoring area that is 12 feet in diameter. For rookie sweepers, the real goal is to brush back and forth like crazy and run like the dickens.

Sounds simple enough, I thought as I joined a half dozen other wanna-be curlers.

The group next to me went first. A solidly built, 5-foot-10 male reporter crouched down in what looked like a track sprinter's starting block. He grabbed the rock by its handle. Then he pushed off, stone sliding in front of him, right foot jutting out, and released the rock.

The stone skidded about 25 feet. The reporter toppled over.

Everyone clapped as loudly as they laughed.

I glanced over at Times photographer Karl Mondon, who was there to record my curl-capade.

Karl smiled.

Suddenly, I felt that jolt of queasiness usually brought on by airplane turbulence.

I inched my way toward the tee, scooting the stone along with my foot.

Kathy Avery, a member of the local curling club, helped position me in the starting block. She smiled with more empathy than Karl had.

"Slide the stone forward, then pull it back and when you slide it forward again, just let it go," Kathy told me. "Piece of cake."

Sure, for her it was easy. Kathy had been curling for 30 years, not 30 seconds.

I did just as she said. Forward. Back. Forward again.

I let the stone go. My foot moved about six inches. The stone moved about the same.

But I didn't fall over.

Karl shook his head.

He recognized a pathetic attempt when he saw one. The next thing I knew, Karl was dragging 2006 Olympian Maureen Brunt to my side.

"She needs help," he told Maureen.

Much as Kathy had, Maureen plopped me down in the starting block. She showed me how to drop and slide my knee along the ice to give the stone more "umph."

This time, I couldn't very well take the chicken's way out with my Olympian mentor watching.

I gave myself a good push off, careened across the ice and reluctantly released the stone.

It flew. I wobbled. And boom, down on my butt I went.

"Look how far your stone went," Maureen said excitedly, waving down the ice.

Sure enough, the sweepers had taken the stone all the way to the house.

I had a bruised bottom but no longer a bruised ego, even knowing Karl had captured my humbling moment in all its digital glory.

On the next lesson, Maureen showed me how to hold the broom so that it dragged along the ice, instead of jutting out like a lance.

"It will act like a brace," she told me. I liked the sound of that.

On my third try, I launched the stone and stayed upright.

Maureen moved on. Apparently, I was ready to be on my own.

I tried my hand at sweeping, too. Turns out those 42-pound rocks move faster than you might think. The broom and I never could keep up.

Not that I minded. I already had my one moment of glory.

That night, I really got a closer look at curling -- and thanks to Karl's photos, the experience was anything but discreet.

As I left the rink, I dug out my cell phone to call my father. "Guess what I did tonight?"

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