- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

It’s a Friday night at the Potomac Curling Club in Laurel, and Dave Hamilton is scrunched down onto the ice, one hand gripping a broom, the other a 42-pound granite stone.

One of his feet is set on a hack — a contraption that resembles a runner’s starting block — that has been inserted into the ice, and he looks like a sprinter getting ready to launch. His other foot has something called a slider fastened to it so that he can shift his body’s weight in a way that will allow him to push off with one foot and toss the 42-pound curling stone down 138 feet of ice to a red, white and blue target, called a house, 12 feet in diameter, where points are scored.

Mr. Hamilton, a 42-year-old Laurel software development manager, is among the more than 1.5 million men, women and children worldwide who play the little-known but growing sport of curling, which became an Olympic sport in the 1998 Winter Games at Nagano, Japan.

A little more than a year ago, Mr. Hamilton and his wife, Kama, joined the Potomac Curling Club after watching the sport on television on a trip to Canada. Each week, the Hamiltons join nearly 200 other area residents who play each night in leagues at the club for stiff competition, recreation, fitness or just an opportunity to socialize.

“The technique isn’t that difficult to learn,” Mr. Hamilton says. “You can have fun your first day out. You can come out and have a blast sliding the stone the first day and learning to sweep. But it can take a lifetime to master the sport, just like golf.”

Since curling was showcased by NBC in the Winter Olympics in 2002 at Salt Lake City, the club has nearly tripled its membership, reflecting growing interest in the United States. The Potomac club is one of about 135 such clubs with some 15,000 member curlers in the United States. The closest curling clubs, other than the Potomac club, are in Philadelphia and Easton, Md.

• • •

Since the mid-1800s, curling, which was created in Scotland 500 years ago, has thrived in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, and some pockets in 20 other states. A club in St. Paul, Minn., has the largest membership in the United States, with some 700 members. Canada, however, is the hotbed of curling in the world, with nearly a million curlers.

Established in 1961, the Potomac Curling Club moved into a new facility in February 2002, coinciding with the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

“The Olympics were certainly helpful in growing our membership,” says Barry Bass, club vice president and a curler for 16 years. “A lot of our members are kind of learning together.”

• • •

Curling is part shuffleboard, part bocce — the Italian outdoor bowling game — and part chess. Instead of sliding a plastic disc, as shuffleboard players do, curlers slide a 42-pound stone that has a metal casing with a red or yellow top.

The stone resembles a large tea kettle and is thrown with a spin, hence the name curling. And although the game is played on ice, players wear shoes with flat rubber soles — not skates.

Another aspect of curling is sweeping. Once a stone is sliding toward the target, two members of the four-person team sweep in front of the stone to keep it sliding. Sweepers press hard on the ice in front of the stone, which creates friction that smoothes and melts the ice particles enough that the stone can travel 10 to 15 feet farther or even change directions.

Sweeping is a key element in the sport and one aspect of the game where strategy comes into play. Curling, in fact, is sometimes referred to as chess on ice because of its emphasis on strategies.

“By sweeping, you can turn a bad shot into a great shot,” says Bob Pelletier, a former president of the club for 12 years, who adds that sweepers walk two miles in a game and receive a vigorous upper-body workout, as well.

One of the strategies of curling is being able to tell when to sweep. Sometimes players jump in front of the stone right away and start sweeping. At other times, players don’t sweep at all. The skip, the quarterback of curling, directs the shots and strategies of the game — when or which way players should sweep or where players should aim the stone.

Scoring is not complicated. Games are measured by “ends”; an end is a division of the game, much like an inning in baseball. An end is completed when each team throws eight stones. In club play, a complete game usually consists of eight ends and lasts about two hours.

A team gains a point for each rock that enters the target area — the house — and is nearer to the center than any of the other team’s stones. Conceivably, a team could score eight points in an end, but that is extremely rare.

In addition, teams alternate throws, and the team that scores throws first in the next end. And each member of the four-member teams delivers two stones per end.

As in shuffleboard, teams try to knock their opponents’ stones off the scoring areas and try to set up guards to protect their own stones in the scoring zone.

• • •

Mr. Bass, a 41-year-old Potomac resident who works in real estate, started curling in 1988 after his wife’s family introduced him to the sport.

“I tried it and got hooked,” he says. “What I like about the sport is that it combines strategy with athleticism and finesse. It’s also a great team sport which is fairly easy to pick up but very difficult to master.

“I enjoy the strategy and trying to improve myself in the sport. The game and the athleticism are part of it, but just as big a part of it is the people that you get to know and the social aspect of it.”

Indeed, Mr. Bass plays in the Pizza League, after whose Sunday-evening games players have pizza and conversation. Socializing and sportsmanship have always been traditional in the sport. Players shake hands before and after games.

Mr. Bass also competes in the Monday-night Capital League, which is more competitive and has few newcomers.

Mr. Bass says it is easier to become skilled in curling than it is to play well in golf.

He adds, however, that it is probably just as hard to master curling’s finesse aspects — getting the touch just right — as it is to master golf skills.

Curlers also have to learn to judge how keen the ice is.

“That’s always something you’re trying to figure out,” Mr. Bass says. “Usually, the ice is a little bit slow at the beginning of the game, and then it’ll pick up and stay relatively consistent. Then you have to be consistent in terms of how you release the stone and make sure that you’re on target, so there are a lot of different moving parts that people don’t fully appreciate when they’re just kind of watching casually.”

Mr. Hamilton, who plays in the TGIF League on Fridays and the Men’s League on Wednesdays, says the hardest parts of curling are learning the nuances of how the ice is reacting, how far the stone is going to turn and when to ask the sweepers to sweep.

Mr. Hamilton, who has competed in tournaments in Philadelphia and Easton, Md., says he likes the people in the sport. “I enjoy the camaraderie, meeting new people, people that I wouldn’t necessarily run into in my day-to-day business,” he says. “It’s a fun evening, a fun way to unwind with a bunch of really nice people.”

Mr. Hamilton says the exciting part of the sport is making a difficult shot that the skip calls for. “If you can execute a shot perfectly, there’s a huge satisfaction to that,” he says.

• • •

Mr. Hamilton’s wife, Kama, also started curling a little more than a year ago. She plays once a week on a mixed team of two men and two women. She says that the basics of the sport are relatively easy to learn and that she was on a team quickly.

“I’m still learning,” says Mrs. Hamilton, who works for the Defense Department. “The hardest part is knowing how to read the ice and knowing the speed of the ice when you throw the stones. You have to be able to read the ice to do any of the four positions. Learning to sweep and to read the ice is just as important as to be able to throw the rock.”

The first player to deliver the stone is called a lead. The next is called a second. Then there are the vice skip and the skip. The first three players perform most of the sweeping; the skip determines strategy.

Mrs. Hamilton says she enjoys the sport. “It’s active and it’s a social activity,” she says. “It’s fun to be out with other people and doing something that’s fun and getting exercise in the process.”

Mr. Pelletier, a Columbia, Md., resident who works for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, was part of a team from the Potomac Club that won the world championship for Rotary International Curling in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2002.

“It was an incredible feeling to win,” he says. “And it was really nice to beat the Scots, since they created the sport.”

After retiring from the Air Force, Mr. Pelletier joined the Potomac Club in 1988. Before his family moved to the United States, Mr. Pelletier had been a schoolboy curler in Canada. However, he didn’t get much of a chance to play the sport after moving to the United States.

“I always loved it,” he says. “But very few places in the Air Force I was stationed at had curling. The only one was at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota.”

Mr. Pelletier says a number of the club’s members curl twice a week. “Once you get into it, you can really get hooked,” he says. “The great thing about curling is that it’s easy to learn how to play. And it’s a game you can play forever. We have young kids, 7- and 8-year-olds playing, and members playing in their 80s.”

Mr. Bass says the club has 30 junior members under 18 who play from 1 to 4 p.m. in a Sunday-afternoon league.

“It’s a great sport,” says Mr. Bass, whose 10-year-old son plays on Sundays. “It’s a great way to get through the winter and has great people.”

Take a class in curling; join a pickup game

Ready for the ice? The place to be is the National Capital Curling Center, home of the Potomac Curling Club, at 13810 Old Gunpowder Road, Laurel, the only club in the Washington area. Newcomers can join the club for half a season for $100 and play as much as they like. For information, call the club at 301/362-1116 or see its Web site, www.curldc.org.

Here’s a look ahead at the club’s activities:

• Drop-in classes: Classes with light instruction for those new to curling. 6:30-7:15 p.m. Thursdays. Free.

• Pickup games: Games start at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays. All equipment is furnished. Players should wear loose-fitting clothing, gloves and sneakers or rubber-soled shoes. $10 per person.

• Open house: Light instruction and information about the club for newcomers. 7-9 p.m. Jan. 6, 1-4 p.m. Jan. 8 and 9. Free.

• 2005 Mixed Nationals: March 13-19. The club will host these games, which will determine the U.S. championship. Day passes per person, $5; for families $20. For times, which have not yet been announced, call 301/362-1116 or see www.curldc.org.

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