I am anti-team sports — except for the time my eighth-grade volleyball team won the division championship in ’95. I loathe butt-slapping, face-painting and hotdog-eating. So I am intrigued when Todd Gault tells me that curling “is more like chess on ice. ... If you can walk, you can curl.”
Besides, my grandmother loves curling. Whether it is the use of such household accoutrements as Teflon and brooms or the jaunty berets worn by professional teams, the power of curling can make an 80-year-old Italian woman forgo her cooking, mending and cleaning for a spot in front of the television.
Curling is one of the oldest sporting traditions in Detroit. I begin Curling 101 at the Detroit Curling Club, the oldest club in the country. It was created in the early 1800s when players spent cold winter afternoons curling on the Detroit River at the foot of Joseph Campau. They also competed at the old Recreation Park.
The sport itself began nearly 500 years ago in Scotland when Highlanders took time out from drinking and pillaging to slide heavy granite stones across frozen lakes and streams.
The object of the modern game is for players to get their curling rocks as close as possible to the center of the “house,” which is roughly equivalent to the scoring zone in shuffleboard. The “skip,” or coach, stands in the house. The curler is at the other end of the course, about 130 feet away. The skip instructs where the curler should aim the rock to score or block the opposing team. When the curler releases the rock, two sweepers with brooms frenetically work the ice in front of the 42-pound polished granite object. The goal is to help it move more quickly down the ice.
Curling stars do not get many endorsements. For most, curling conjures images of portly Canadians. But curling employs not only complicated strategies for blocking, scoring and sweeping; it carries a proud ethos as well.
The handbook of the World Curling Federation says, “Curling is a game of skill and traditions. It is a fine thing to observe the time-honored traditions of curling being applied in the true spirit of the game. Curlers play to win but never to humble their opponents. A true curler would prefer to lose rather than win unfairly.”
Curlers adhere to these tenets. Mike Christy calls curlers “a big family, everyone is so warm and friendly.” I am told this philosophy holds true for the approximately 15,000 curlers in the United States and 1 million worldwide.
Gault says curling may not be wildly popular because, “It’s cold, it’s slippery, and there’s an element of danger.”
Slippery, I understand, but danger? Are you kidding?
“Oh, no,” says Renee Giroux, publicity chair for the club. “I almost got whiplash once, and we have another member who fell and hit her head so hard that she sustained fluid on the brain and had to be hospitalized.”
At the club during a Tuesday league night, I watch a team of young, khaki-clad advertising professionals get trounced by a team of older, bad-ass women who seem bemused by the antics of their opponents. One woman, Renee, proudly explains that her battered Converse All-Stars are the same ones she wore playing softball in the ’70s, only with the addition of a Teflon slide. The women laugh and gossip as they sweep for their teammates.
At the other end of the ice are oldtimers, crusty white-haired men who have been curling for decades. They deliver the rock with such precision that other curlers speak of them in hushed tones. I now appreciate curling not only for the challenge or the camaraderie, but because it appeals to my love of the bizarre. There is something absurd yet beautiful about grizzled men wielding brooms with deadly precision as they glide across carefully pebbled ice on Teflon-coated shoes.
I find myself grinning and cheering for my favorite teams, bubbling over with the unfamiliar fire of competition. Now all I need is some face paint and a giant foam finger. I am officially a sports fan.
The Detroit Curling Club is located at 1615 E. Lewiston in Ferndale. The club welcomes both visitors and new members.Domenique Osborne is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org