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Monday night ice

Local curlers can appreciate skill of Olympians

It’s Monday night. A handful of people are milling about the Main Street Arena lobby. Some head to the bar, while others congregate around the ice. Two men carefully prep the ice and line up equipment along the edges of the rink. Finally, once the ice is deemed ready, everyone wearing snow boots, boat shoes and sneakers steps onto the ice for the big event: curling.

Curling has been an Olympic sport since its official addition to the 1998 Nagano program. Details of the sport remain obscure to many, with public knowledge mostly limited to
the iconic brooms or signature pants worn by Norwegian team members in 2010. But those present at the Main Street Arena Monday night would tell you otherwise.

The Arena has long been home to skating in Charlottesville, but management changes in the summer of 2010 introduced a new curling league, which now contains 24 teams and has exploded in popularity. This year, more than 200 people signed up for a mere 96 spots — a league record, Arena manager Will van der Linde said. Players in the league range from ages 12 to 75.

Thanks to the generosity of Curl Me Maybe, a team comprised of second-year graduate students in the Darden School, this journalist can attest that curling is really, really, really hard.

The goal of curling seems fairly obvious: Step 1: Slide rock across the ice. Step 2: sweep the ice so that the rock lands on a bull’s-eye. Step 3: Win. However, those particular rocks — called stones — weigh 42 pounds each, and they don’t like to go exactly where they’re intended. Just sliding — proper deemed “throwing” — those stones requires a degree of balance that the less coordinated among us may never achieve.

So you’ve figured out how to push off the starting block, called the hack, and stay upright long enough to heave that godforsaken piece of granite — which, by the way, comes from one of two quarries in Scotland and is therefore more exclusive than even the most elite of fraternities here at U.Va. — across the ice. Now comes the sweeping — no big deal, you sweep your kitchen floor every once in a while, right?

Wrong. Effective sweeping can keep a stone going for a good 20 yards, but effective sweeping comes from years of experience, training, and — wait for it — cardio. And, while you’re at it, don’t fall over and split your head open on the ice, okay?

Strategy also plays a huge role in curling — they don’t call it “chess on ice” for nothing. Since each team will throw eight stones in alternating turns, curling teams must anticipate moves — whether it be to try for a scoring rock, to clog up the lane, or to take out an opponent’s stone — well in advance.

Not that any of that is ever guaranteed to go your way.

“We had all eight stones in the house,” player Gary Kriebel said of his worst curling memory, “But we didn’t have hammer, which means the last rock, and the other team dropped one right on the button. That negated all eight of ours. They got that one to make the playoffs and we were out.”

So, let’s recap. Curling is fun. Curling is frustrating. Everyone can curl. Few can be good at it. Those few will soon take their talents to the bonspiel — that’s a curling tournament for you common folk — in Sochi, and they will make it look easy.

Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, the Main Street Arena crowd will watch with privileged knowledge in hand. After all, they know how difficult every single move on the ice is. But, having spent their Mondays curling in good spirits with good company, they also know just what elite competitors get out of hours spent on the ice.

“It’s wildly hard,” Kriebel said, “but it’s wildly fun.”

Refreshments don’t hurt, either. Ice does a splendid job of keeping a beer cold while one is occupied with another activity, like curling.

“It’s curling tradition that the winning team buys the losing team a drink after the match,” Kriebel said.

With teams like Rolling Stones, Harbingers of Broom, and collective favorite Three Men Are Sweeping With My Wife, the lucky 96 curlers enjoy the sport in a low-pressure, social atmosphere. While some participants from Canada and the upper Midwestern states have considerable experience, many are first-timers on the ice. Still, they insist that skill is unimportant.

“Everybody can figure out how to curl,” van de Linde said. “It’s a blast. Some people really get into it.”


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