Oh, curling, I have missed you.
Every four years, you come into my life, and I welcome you with open arms and eyes wide open, glued to the television. You beckon, and I cannot turn you off. I am drawn to your stones and brooms and ice, so smooth and clear.
Others mock, but plenty will be watching with me in living rooms or basements. I admit, guilt-free, I am fascinated.
Do I know the rules, exactly? No! But that will not stop me.
I will watch and will keep watching. I DVR coverage and delay dinner for matches. The NBCfamily of networks knows there are others like me out here and will supply hours of curling to meet our enormous appetite. Friends may roll their eyes at my enthusiasm; I don’t need them anyway. They are the ones missing out. They can watch the extreme skiing and snowboarding, sports for the attention-deficit culture. I’m fine hanging with the curlers.
Curlers are regular folks who grew up in really cold states and who have gotten really, really, really good at an arctic combination of bowling and shuffleboard. The snowboarders often seem like pampered trust-fund babies. The speedskaters’ thighs are as big as tree trunks. Figure skaters drip with drama. The skiing beauties, some of them pop stars back home, are the intimidating girls at the bar. Curlers are the moms in the school pickup line, the dads at the grocery store.
But they are Olympians. I watch them with fascination. I want to hang with them. I want to be them.
Let’s have a beer together after this is done, I think. They can tell me about their match, how that one stone didn’t quite slide right, while we order the next batch of cheese fries. We can gossip about the Russians or maybe snicker about the attention-seeking Norwegians in their technicolor pants. Those camera hogs! we say, they think they’re so handsome and ruggedly Scandinavian. I will ask them about the Olympic Village, about what goes on there, if they have played ping-pong with anyone famous.
A combination of factors draws me in. Commands shouted in foreign tongues. Snazzy outfits. Attractive, flexible women. Ordinary guys. The oldest American athlete at the games. The nifty-sounding word bonspiel, the official name for a curling tournament. I imagine the villagers in 1800s Scotland bundled up against the cold, heading for the frozen loch. Or townspeople in Wisconsin, setting up brightly colored banners outside the curling rink for the weekend tournament, grilling bratwurst and swigging beer.
The scoring remains a bit of a jumble, but the game is perfectly set up to draw you in for two weeks every four years. I could do this, I think. I cannot break down strategy or completely understand the rules, but I am enthralled. It’s the yellingand the frantic sweeping, the strategy sessions, the stones clunking together, bouncing off to the side like children sent to timeout.
The matches unfurl slowly, taking on their own identity. A ski jump lasts a few seconds. Speedskating races are done in a couple of minutes. Even in hockey, goals can happen at any time. In curling, each end develops and builds over nearly three hours. We invest time in this distraction. Curling beckons us to settle into our chair with a heaping bowl of cereal and let the calm roll over us as the rock zips toward its collision. Olympic curling is a welcome respite from hoops and football, a bridge to spring.
The stone slides soundlessly. Then the sweepers appear. They furiously brush the ice. There is more yelling, and vigorous sweeping, and yelling. I think she is screaming “Hard!” Look how close they are to the stone, the rock, the flattened bowling ball. They never touch it, how does that happen? The sweepers gracefully step over the other stones, avoiding them like land mines. They are athletes! Amazing athletes who are calm under pressure, disciplined, determined, fit in mind and body. At least in mind.
I love how the stone curves around the other stones, dodging enemy traffic, like a nimble point guard through the lane, a getaway criminal vehicle in the chase sequence. And then THUD! Contact! The stones bump away, slide out of the house, the lingo for the red-and-blue ringed target where points are awarded.
The commentator says, “That one floated right through the house.” At my house, I have to take out the recycling piled up at the door. I meant to take it out an hour ago, but I have not been able to move.
The curlers, in cool special shoes that glide, line up the next shot, measuring the angles, plan precisely where the stone should hit, how they can cause a chain reaction that will evict their opponents but leave their pieces snuggled at home. Maybe they’ll leave it short on purpose, a lonely blocker, a sacrificial placement.
Ploop! Another rock connects. A thing of beauty, right? What’s happening? Did she mean to do that? Is it going too far? Stop! Stop! Ah. You look to the skip for a sign of good or bad. She’s not smiling, but she’s not pissed either. The scoreboard doesn’t change, because it’s in the middle of the inning or frame or end or whatever. You thought you were getting this, but now you’re not sure. But you can’t turn it off. You look for techniques, how they turn their hand so subtly as they release it down the ice. That matters? That little twist of the wrist, pinch of the fingers?
During the Swiss and American match, my wife says, “Now she’s just going to triple-hit them out.” That doesn’t seem technical, but exactly describes what needs to be done. She suddenly knows curling strategy and is skeptical of the Americans’ plan.
The on-screen graphic shows red and yellow icons representing curling stones. They look like the prizes in Pac-Man, the fruit you can eat during the middle of each board. The Swiss woman, apparently her nickname is “the Swiss Miss,” misses, fittingly, on her turn. Must be the nerves. I sympathize. I imagine having your stone slip past its target is like watching your bowling ball dip into the gutter at the last second, barely missing the 7-pin. Only worse. Because, you know, this is the Olympics.
I check the standings. The matches are getting more tense, the elite separating themselves from the pack. As the games enter the knockout round, the Americans predictably have been bounced aside. Men and women from Canada and Sweden were among those who advanced to the semifinals. Apparently curling has caught fire in China, too, because the men advanced. Curling is everywhere.
I try to concoct curling strategy. Don’t “lay up” right here. Be more aggressive. Do not become distracted by the Russians, and their loud cheering contingent in the stands, playing on the adjacent sheet. I hope they have analyzed advanced statistics based on scenarios and rock placement so they know the best play.
How long have I been watching this, anyway? I am lost among the stones.
I want to play. I want to join a league near my home. I Google “curling leagues.”
Patrick M. O’Connell is an award-winning writer and editor who has covered news and sports for publications throughout the Midwest since 1998. You can follow him on Twitter @pmocwriter.
I’m with you Patrick! I love everything about this sport, and I’ve never even picked up a broom (in a competitive context).
— Ken Levine Feb 19, 07:00 PM #