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Curls of Wisdom

My attempt to learn the Olympic sport of curling

Jan. 20, 2010

Remarkably, I didn't fall down.

That was the chief concern harbored by co-workers and friends when I reported back on my curling experience, and I was happy to say I had, in fact, kept my feet Jan. 14 when I attended an open night at the Kettle Moraine Curling Club in Hartland.

Even when instructor Pat Van Till fitted me with a flat-soled slider for my shoe, allowing me to slide farther upon delivery of the "stone," I held on to my balance. Maybe those balance games on the Wii Fit have been paying dividends.

If I didn't make a fool of myself that way, I figured I would instead slide all the stones out the back of the target area or "house," with an inappropriate volume of violent force. The momentum of the stone comes from legs, Van Till told me, and not the arm, but I have a bowling background and expected my right arm to revert into a natural pushing or throwing mode.

Not so! Though I left plenty of stones short of the mark, I was delighted when two or three made their way into the target area, leaving me feeling like maybe I could play this game, after all.

"It's a lot like golf," Pat's husband and club vice president Ken Van Till told me. "It takes you 15 minutes to learn how to play, and you spend the rest of your life trying to perfect it."

So rather than wait around for the inevitable depreciation of skills, I quickly tried my hand at sweeping and quit while I was ahead, deferring to the more-than 35 participants who showed up for the weekly open night. I spent the rest of the night learning about the game that the Van Tills - residents of North Lake - obviously love dearly.

A popular sport

When I told friends I wanted to try curling, the endeavor was met with equal parts fascination and amusement. On the one hand, the game looks like an icy version of shuffleboard, with maybe some lawn bowling mixed in, except two players are furiously sweeping the ice with brooms. That hardly sounds like an Olympic sport.

On the other hand, the game has a substantial base of popularity in Wisconsin. Its 24 clubs - including Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, Racine and Hartland - are the most of any U.S. state, and this particular club on Oakwood Road boasts a membership of 200. With several weekly leagues of varying experience and seriousness, not to mention a program with Carroll College and occasional visits from high school gym classes, the club seldom sees down time.

Curling took a long hiatus from Olympic status until returning as a medal sport in 1998, and the United States won its first medal - a bronze - at the last Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. The game harbors a fitness component, but modifications to the delivery can be made to accommodate aging or injured players, and the Van Tills said one club member was still playing into her 90s.

"Some clubs are younger than ours, but we have a spread of ages," said North Lake resident Jimmy Hulen, 36, in his second year of curling. "I'm the youngest by half (the age of the next-oldest player) on my Wednesday team, but it's awesome. I feel younger hanging out with these guys."

Social circles

Each of the circular tables in the back of the club has eight chairs, and there's a specific reason why.

As competitive as the game can be, the socialization aspect is equally key to the curling experience. Pat Van Till said the four-person teams are downright required to sit with their opponents after a match and eat or drink together - with most sustenance provided by the club's full kitchen and bar.

"It's a very social thing," Stu Bachmann of Merton said. "When you join here, Pat makes sure that everyone gets to meet everyone. If we have a new couple join, she makes sure she introduces people and makes you come back. You're supposed to visit with your opponents."

Said Delafield's Bob McClain, "At some clubs, I've heard the winners buy the drinks, and it keeps the beginners coming back."

That's not the case at the Kettle Moraine club, where annual dues cover curling as well as beverages and club activities. Plush couches and gorgeous new wooden lockers were beyond my preconceived expectations, let alone a full kitchen.

Stone's throw

When I was learning, I didn't realize I was being trusted with such expensive equipment. Ken said two curling stones cost upwards of $750, mainly because all of the world's stones are constructed of rock from a specific quarry in Scotland.

It was in Scotland that the game was born, in the 16th century.

"Did Ken kind of tell you about the origins of it?" Hulen asked me. "Basically in Scotland, they played a game to roll a rock as far as you can down the lake. But Seamus was bigger than Peter and could always throw the rock farther, so Peter said, 'Forget it, I'm drawing circles on the ice and whoever's closer to here … that's how we do it.' "

As Hulen said, the game is pretty simple - closest to the middle wins. But the strategy of where to place a stone, "guarding" other pieces already in the target area and reading the ice (like a golfer reads a putting green) creates a game more akin to chess than darts.

"People play a lot of different styles of game," Hulen said.

My style: try not to fail miserably, so I count this visit as a success. Next time, I may try my hand at an actual game. I'm going to need a lot more Wii Fit for that.

Know the rules

Some basic rules of curling:

→ Each game involves a predetermined number of "ends," akin to innings in baseball. Competitions range from six to 10 ends.

→ For each end, the team with the stone closest to the center or "tee" wins a point. Only one team can score points per end. The winning team receives a point for each stone closer to the tee than any stone of the opposing team.

→ The act of sweeping in front of the moving stone allows the stone to travel farther and enhances the desired direction.

→ Curling is so named because the direction of the stones can actually "curl" on their way down the ice, an effect triggered by release technique and sweeping.

→ A team is composed of four players. Each player delivers two stones in consecutive order in each end, while alternating with an opponent.

→ The players labeled "vice-skip" and "skip" deliver third and fourth, and the "hammer" stone - the final toss, belonging to the team that did not score in the preceding end - holds chief importance.

→ Sweepers may actually sweep opponent's stones in the latter half of the target area, in an effort to guide them outside the scoring area.

Learn to curl

The Kettle Moraine Curling Club will host open house events in February. Those interested are encouraged to call ahead or e-mail to reserve a time.

• 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14

• 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20

• 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25

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