“It gets in your blood,” he said. “The tradition of sitting down with the opposing team — that social aspect — is at least 50 percent of it for me.”
Having entire families involved is commonplace. There are parent-child teams, sibling teams, spouse teams and cousin teams.
“It’s like incest,” joked Judy Olsen, a third-generation curler.
Chris McGirl — who often bumps into her relatives on a curling rink — said those ties are what sustained the sport before TV audiences discovered it.
“That used to be how it kept going,” she said. “Before the Olympics, this sport was pretty much unpublicized. The membership grew by recruiting friends and relations to come join.”
New meets the old
The game’s focus — getting your stones as close to the center target as possible while blocking your opponents’ shots — is the same as when curling was developed in Scotland during the mid-1500s. But technology has changed the way it’s played.
When the St. Paul Curling Club held its first match on Dec. 24, 1912, there were no refrigerated rinks. Members flooded the floor, then opened the doors and windows to let Mother Nature provide the ice. The resulting surface was bumpy and uneven, requiring the curlers to pick up the 42-pound stones and throw them in a motion similar to bowling.
The pristine ice in modern-day rinks has changed the emphasis from strength to finesse, Dexter said. Now curlers slide the stones using energy generated by their legs as they push off from what’s called a hack, a foothold similar to the starting blocks used by runners in a 100-yard dash.
The brooms used to influence the speed and curve of the stones also have evolved. Wooden brushes with corn bristles have been replaced by high-tech brooms made of fiberglass or carbon fiber and outfitted with artificial heads that allow the sweeper to apply more pressure to the ice.
“The young curlers don’t have a clue what it used to be like,” said Byrnes, who started curling when he was in junior high. “Everything now is so predictable. The stone always goes where you throw it. It used to be a lot harder. The ice was so bad that a stone would just fly off on you.”
He paused before adding: “Of course, the curlers also are better athletes now.”
And they are athletes. Before the Olympics are over, someone — a blogger, a reader commenting on an online news story or maybe a self-acclaimed know-it-all in a bar — will opine that curling isn’t a sport. The curlers beg to differ.
A curling rink is 150 feet long. By the time a player has run up and down it for eight “ends” — think “innings” — trying to keep ahead of the stones, they will have gone at least two miles, Melby said.
Add the stress of frantically pushing on a broom and it quickly becomes a workout, said Olsen, who wears a heart monitor during games. “It’ll get up into the 170s [beats per minute] when I’m out on the ice,” she said.
The Olympic curlers put a premium on fitness, said Dexter, who has coached world-class curlers.
“That’s one of the first things we learned when we went to the Olympic training center,” he said. “The Olympic athletes don’t socialize after a game. They play longer games [10 ends instead of the recreational eight] and often play two games a day. And when they’re not on the ice, they’re in the gym.”
Dexter interrupted himself to turn his attention to a person who was leaving the club.