Note: This story originally published in February 2010.
Whenever a Texan winter sends the slightest dusting of snow my way, my thoughts hurtle passionately toward downhill skiing. As to whether I also crave spending a winter's day curling -- all I can say is: "Fugget-'bout-it."
Over the years, I've become snidely dismissive of this arcane, centuries-old sport with its odd accoutrements: Is that really a broom out there? And what exactly is that bulky object gliding across the ice called anyway?
But now I must confess to a change of heart. The Vancouver Winter Olympics' curling coverage has gradually worn down my once-stiff resistance to this mysterious sport.
So with the curling competition's medal rounds beginning Friday, I've decided to stop being an armchair curling critic and to start romancing the stone.
Nerves on ice
I stick my nose inside the hockey rink of the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Farmers Branch and a shiver rattles my spine. Ice is everywhere, and for the next two hours, I'll be out on it, learning the fine points of curling by playing on a team -- in an actual weekly match with local curling bragging rights and league standings on the line.
Let me establish upfront that I'm a neurotic weekend athlete, full of ticks and irrational fears -- as tightly wound as my corkscrew hair. So my biggest curling concern is that my first step onto the rink will send me flying in the air, landing with a thud on my highly bruisable backside. Miraculously, with each apprehensive, doddering-old-man-step I take on the rink, I start feeling more at home in my slippery surroundings.
Adding to my growing sense of on-ice comfort is meeting my fellow curlers. Team Myers is one of nine teams competing in the official Dallas-Fort Worth Curling Club league. The "Myers" in Team Myers is Nick Myers, the team's "skip," or captain. Myers is a 29-year-old Minnesota native. I can't quibble with this man's curling credentials; he came in fifth at last year's Olympic trials.
Even better is that Nick, with a smile as wide as the Texas panhandle, along with his other curlers, are so gosh-darn friendly. They are also blessed with seemingly endless reserves of patience when it comes to teaching me how to avoid being a curling clown. During my two-hour curling session, I probably encountered roughly a third of the entire transplanted Minnesota-Canadian population of the Metroplex -- with every one equally convivial.
Being a word-guy, I insist on learning all the right curling terminology. I figure our field of play is similar to a bowling lane. Big mistake. Merely uttering the word, "lane," instead of the proper term, "sheet" tends to drive normally even-tempered curlers a little batty.
OK, now that I'm curling on a "sheet," what exactly is that bulky thing-a-ma-jig I'm going to dispatch down the ice? That's a curling stone or rock, which weighs 42 pounds and is made of granite. And surely that broomlike device, for sweeping the ice in front of the sliding stone, must have some fancy name? Yeah, it's called a broom.
Finally, what are we exactly -- a klatch of curlers? A curling cabal or curling commune? Nope. You can just call us "curlers."
The sport's refreshing civility is established even before I send my first stone careening down the ice. I am required to shake hands with my three other teammates, and our four opponents, while heartily wishing everyone, "Good curling."
Our match is made up of eight "ends," the equivalent of a baseball inning. Each of my team's four players sends two stones down toward the other end of the rink, and the other team sends its eight stones down there as well. Both teams try to land their stones as close to the center of a concentric set of circles (or the "house") as possible -- while strategically knocking out the opponents' rocks at the same time.
Think of shuffleboard or lawn-bowling, only served on the rocks.
The classic curling toss involves bending one's knee so low that it scrapes the ice, making a curler appear as if he's proposing holy matrimony to a fellow curler. But with my team actually needing me to participate in their match, I could not send the rock down with my hand while using a perfectly controlled glide-lunge. Uh, oh.
Another problem: This standard curling stance would require me putting on a slider slipper, essentially converting my left foot into an ice skate for easier gliding. In my Murphy's Law mind, I envision my slider foot sliding toward Mesquite while the rest of my body remains in Farmers Branch. Ouch.
So, I nix the curler's balletic lunge-glide and opt for the full gripping power of my tennis shoes and the pedestrian-looking curling stick. Loosely attached to the stone, my stick helps gently launch the stone down the ice. Now while my aim tends to be straight, my stone picks up a turbo-charged velocity that demands some anti-lock brakes.
Noticing my dilemma, teammate Steven Neilsen (who hails from the curling mecca of Canada but only started the sport once he came to Texas) suggests I let the momentum of my forward-moving body, and not my arms, propel the stone down the ice.
Great advice, Steve. By the fourth "end" I start to find my range. And by "end" six, I earn some boisterous curling kudos as one of my stones hits an opponent's rock, knocking him out of point-scoring range.
That nifty little maneuver is known as a "nose-hit" leading to a "takeout."
"Great takeout, Andrew," enthuses teammate Judy Friend. Feeling curling cocky, I then josh: "Thanks. It's even better than the Chinese I had last night."
Judy giggles. If I can't help the team win, at least I can be its comic relief.
Swept up in it
And when it comes to true comedy, nothing beats the sight-gag of me sweeping. As one teammate launches the stone down the ice, two other teammates, brooms in hand, like hyper-caffeinated housekeepers, follow the stone and start sweeping in front of it. The whole point is to remove friction-causing impediments in front of the stone so that it can slide as far as possible.
So here I am, broom in hand, ready to sweep at the first barking command of my "skip." Here comes the stone. And there goes the stone. It's like an express train, resisting any of my shuffling attempts to catch up to it. My first eight times sweeping, the only thing I swept away was any chance of helping my team.
By end four, I find my perfect sweeping spot. I'm halfway down the ice, where I can start sweeping ferociously yards in front of the oncoming stone. Finally, I've discovered a part of curling that satisfies my cleanliness obsession. I am determined to make my ice so spotless that I could open up a snow-cone concession right there.
After two hours of curling, I feel myself succumbing to the sport's centrifugal force of appeal. I yelp with glee when one of my stones ends up being "back of the house" or in the final ring of the main target area. I am "still in play," and I feel great about it. I feel even better when my stone is soon knocked out. In just one curling match, I have risen to the status of a stone to be "taken out."
A toast to the team
The game ends after seven ends, and I think I played a minor role in helping Team Myers defeat Team Havercroft by the decisive score of 6-3. Team Havercroft's "skip," Jonathan Havercroft, wins my curling dedication award as every Sunday, he drives from Norman, Okla., to the Farmers Branch rink.
After both teams exchange another round of handshakes and hearty "good curlings" -- and I get decorated with a curling club pin -- it is time for the post-match ritual of a beer.
Though I'm not much of a beer drinker, it would be rude not to partake, especially as the Miller Lite comes with blue tubs of cinema-worthy popcorn. A couple of warming sips of beer and I find myself invested in the team's future.
"What's our, er, your record?" I ask. Nine wins, two losses, I'm told. That's good enough for first place.
"Will there be an annual tournament to finish off the year?" I ask.
"You mean the 'bonspiel?'" clarifies Myers.
"Of course, the 'bonspiel,'" I say, feigning complete knowledge of a curling term that sounds more like an Austrian veal dish.
You betcha: The "bonspiel" will take place April 16-18 at the Houston Curling Club.
Perhaps emboldened, or deluded, by the beer, I tell Myers that if he ever needs a leadoff man, he should keep me on his speed dial.
And just like that, in two hours, I went from a curling curmudgeon to a curler-on-call.
Andrew Marton is a Star-Telegram senior arts writer, 817-390-7679