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Most fun you can have with a broom: Olympics bring curling back to forefront
Curious game of brooms on ice gains popularity every four years
Question of the Day
Having run with the bulls in Spain the previous summer, Linda Kirkman decided the next thing to cross off her bucket list would be to try curling.
Kirkman and her husband, Russ, had been intrigued by the sport since they first watched it years ago during the Olympics. Seeking a competitive athletic endeavor, she tried playing basketball and softball, but wasn't good enough at either of them to last. They tried playing pool, but games dragged on forever.
"I think both of us thought, 'OK, we're just going to go try it and see,' and I know he really thought that like with bowling, I'd be like, 'Screw it. This doesn't work,'" Linda Kirkman said. "With this, we saw that the more you played, you'd get better, but that everybody goofs up.
"It's such a friendly sport, even on the competitive side of it, that you don't have to be fabulous at every shot. And I'm not."
The Kirkmans began playing the sport in January 2013 and got hooked. They joined the Potomac Curling Club in Laurel, a short drive from their Rockville home, and began playing in leagues.
Last weekend, they were two of the 29 players who spread over four sheets for the Mid-Atlantic Curling Association bonspiel, or tournament, which also drew curlers from clubs in central New Jersey and in Philadelphia.
Curiosity about the sport, which looks like shuffleboard on ice and has the casual feel of bowling, escalates every four years as it is thrust into public view during the Winter Olympics.
According to the U.S. Curling Association, approximately 16,000 Americans are registered with more than 165 clubs in 40 states, and those numbers are growing. More than 7,500 curlers are registered in Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to all but one of the 10 men and women making up the two U.S. Olympic curling teams, and the demographics are shifting south and west.
In recent years, clubs have been established in California, Texas and Mississippi. Later this month, the Coyotes Curling Club, based in suburban Phoenix, is scheduled to open its state-of-the-art ice house in Tempe after sharing time since 2003 at the Scottsdale Ice Den, the practice facility of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes.
"Those are dedicated facilities and people are really getting excited about it," said John Landsteiner, a 23-year-old from Mapleton, Minn., who will represent the United States in the Olympics for the first time. "It's really, really appealing because it's something everybody can do."
The Potomac Curling Club, established in 1961, has approximately 250 dedicated members who play in a variety of leagues and tournaments. The club hosts open houses to teach prospective curlers several times each winter, and because it's an Olympic year, it will sponsor leagues for curlers who pick up the sport after watching it on television.
Paige Roberts was among those who walked into the club for the first time after the Vancouver Olympics four years ago. A marine biologist for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Roberts has begun volunteering more often at the club, supervising events such as the Mid-Atlantic Curling Association bonspiel last weekend.
She will be on the women's team that will represent the region in the weeklong national club competition in Two Harbors, Minn., beginning Feb. 15.
"I watched it in the Olympics and I just thought it was a sport that I could be good at, because it's not super-athletic," Roberts said. "There's no running involved, which is great for me. I don't like running at all. And, it's such a mental game. There's so much strategy, and I like that."
The sport originated in Scotland, where a written account of games dates to 1541. Scottish immigrants brought it to the United States in the early 1830s, and it spread as curlers taught their children and grandchildren how to play.
That gave curling its small-town feel. Landsteiner learned the game from his father, Steve, who played recreationally, and his uncle, Gary Kleffman, who was part of the U.S. team that won the world championship in 1976.
Another U.S. Olympian, Jared Zezel, learned the sport because his parents, Joe and Anna, used to let him practice on a spare sheet while they played in a league at the local curling club. One day, they were approached by Kleffman and Joe Roberts, who offered to teach Jared how to play.
"He was just throwing rocks, and they went out and started fine-tuning him, and it kind of got into his head that, 'Wait, I've got former world champions that want to work with me? Maybe I've got some kind of potential,'" Joe Zezel said. "Then he got involved in different places with curling. He went up Canada a few times when he was young with different teams, and he really got the bug doing that."
Curling first became an Olympic competition at the 1924 Chamonix Games, but didn't return to the program full time until the Nagano Games in 1998.
The Vancouver Olympics became a turning point for the sport's popularity in the United States, mostly because NBC televised it frequently. This year, CNBC will carry a game each day throughout the competition, including the men's and women's finals, and games will be streamed live through NBC's Olympics website.
"I think the Olympics has really changed how people think about curling and who thinks that they can curl," Roberts said. "You see in the Olympics that it's people of all ages, so I think it's sort of shifted the demographic a lot."
The Kirkmans play together in one league, while Linda plays in two others and schedules the teams for another on Sunday nights. They also volunteered to help lay down the ice, a month-long process that finished in October, and will compete in their first away tournament, in Rochester, N.Y., next week.
"We thought we were just going to come watch one morning, and then we ended up learning, and then playing," Linda Kirkman said. "We thought it was going to be a one-time thing, or maybe two."
"Play a Saturday morning, 'Well, that was fun,'" Russ Kirkman said. "'Well, let's go back.' Now our friends know about it."
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