Do not be fooled by what you’ve seen on television. Curling is harder than the Olympians make it look.
I should know. I gave the sport a try during the Albany Curling Club’s open house Saturday in Guilderland.
One of the first things they made people do when they entered was sign a waiver form indemnifying them from any injuries you might incur trying the sport. You might think, “How serious of an injury can you suffer? It’s curling, not hockey.”
But let’s not forget, curling is played on ice. And no matter how hard it is or how well they “pebble” the ice (creating little bubbles on the surface by drizzling water on top and letting it freeze), it’s still slippery. If you’re not careful, you can land face-first or butt-first onto it, and it will hurt. Also, you’re not wearing any safety equipment. That factors into what happens when you land.
However, curling isn’t what one would consider to be a “serious” sport. The atmosphere is congenial, and sportsmanship is a major component. In fact, there is a pamphlet in the lobby describing all the proper curling etiquette, including complimenting your opponents when they make a good shot, being courteous and quiet when a curler is in the “hack” (more on that in a minute) and being ready to go when it’s your turn.
“You shake hands before the game, and you shake hands after the game,” said Ed Muller, a 76-year-old Guilderland resident who has been an Albany Curling Club member for 18 years. “Then, you can sit around a table afterward with your teammates and opponents and talk about what’s going on in your lives over a beer.”
The club asked open house participants to bring clean sneakers with them to wear on the ice. Just in case you weren’t certain about the cleanliness of your soles, you could go to a shoe washing station in the lobby where two club members were stationed, buckets and brushes at the ready. As I learned later from one of the instructors, any kind of dirt or hair tracked onto the ice can create a problem. The environment has to be kept clean in order for the ice to be perfect.
While waiting for my group to be called onto the ice, I found 2013 Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk High School graduate Alex Soutiere sitting at one of the tables. He was there with his mom and her boyfriend, who wanted to try the sport after seeing it on TV. As it turned out, Soutiere – who wrestled in the 285-pound weight class last year – tried the sport once before.
“I curled when I was like 8 years old, I think,” said Soutiere, a two-time Section II Division II heavyweight champion. And what was Soutiere most concerned with? “Sliding. I’m watching the people (at the Olympics), and they’re doing the splits out there.”
I soon found myself doing the splits. When my group took to the ice, the first thing we learned was the proper sliding technique. One by one, we placed one foot in the “hack” – imagine a track runner’s starting blocks sticking out from the ice, only the feet are side by side and you only put one foot in it – and the other foot on a Teflon-coated rubber sole called the “slider.” Then, we crouched down and placed our hands on two 42-pound rocks. Once in position, we pushed off with our hack foot, extended that leg backward and glided forward with the slider leg still bent up in a crouch.
It took me a couple of tries to get the movement sort of figured out. I landed on both knees on the first attempt because I forgot to extend my slider foot as the instructor told me to do. The second and third attempts were shaky, but I held the correct form. The other four people in my group – a pair of local couples – had varying levels of success in learning the technique.
As soon as we gained a basic understanding sliding, we went to the next station to learn how to get the rock to curl. This was the easiest station of the five we visited, as far as I was concerned. The only thing we had to learn was which direction the handle on top of the rock had to be pointed to get it to turn the right direction. Point the handle at 10 o’clock to get the rock to go to the right, and point the handle at 2 o’clock to go left. We also learned the basic hand signals the “skip,” or team leader, uses to tell the “thrower” which way to send the rock.
We began putting the two elements together at the next station. We pushed off from the hack while holding our brooms to our side for stability, but we didn’t release the stone. Again, the group had varying levels of success with getting the proper form. I did okay, but I didn’t slide too far from the hack because I wasn’t pushing off with a lot of force.
From there, we got to the station where we could try throwing a stone. I felt somewhat confident I could do it, but it turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be. I struggled keeping my feet where they needed to be, and I lost my balance all three times I tried it. My best attempt was successfully throwing the stone after falling on my side on the second try. The stone curled where the instructor wanted it to go with plenty of force. I just looked really awkward when I did it.
I should mention at this point that my fiance, Sherry, was taking pictures from the waiting room. Luckily, my fall was at the far end of the ice so she couldn’t get a good picture of it.
Finally, we reached the sweeping station. While there are few people in the world who don’t know how to sweep with a broom, you don’t really think of the motion as being the basis for an intense cardio workout until you try it on ice. We only went up and back a short distance with an instructor pushing the rock along at a slow pace, but I was exhausted when it was over because I was sweeping like my life depended on it. Just thinking about having to do that repeatedly over three-quarters of playing surface during an eight-end recreational match still makes my head spin.
Fortunately, you don’t sweep for each of the eight rocks thrown during an end. Each member of a four-person team gets to throw two rocks, but if you’re not the skip you can wind up sweeping for the remaining six rocks. Still, you are going to get a major workout even as a recreational curler.
Most of the 140 active members at the Albany Curling Club are just that – recreational curlers. Club president Kevin Ryan said some of the younger curlers take a more competitive approach to the sport, but most of the members are there for the fun and camaraderie.
“We’re more of a have a great time, it’s a winter sport, it’s something to do club,” said Ryan.
But there is much more to curling than the physical activity. Once you get the basics down, you start getting into the strategy – where to place the rocks in the “house” to score points, how to knock your opponents’ rocks outside of the house and how to defend your rocks from being knocked out.
Strategy sessions are for another time. Just learning the proper techniques takes time. At least, you can have fun while doing it.