- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - For most people, curling is that weird ice sport - game? activity? - encountered every four years during the Winter Olympics. It’s the event in which two people with brooms sweep away at the ice while what appears to be a giant hockey puck shaped like a teakettle slides toward a target. To the untrained eye of the average television viewer, the sweeping appears to be hypnotically pointless busywork. It looks less practical than magical, as if it were a ritual suitable to that other sport involving brooms, Harry Potter’s Quidditch.

“Tell me about the dopest curling shot you’ve ever seen,” comedian Stephen Colbert asked members of the U.S. National Curling Team during one of his Olympics visits. Later, he berated a pair of sweepers: “I want to be able to eat off that ice!” As Colbert’s ribbing indicates, curling - like polka dancing and some other Old World activities that aren’t quite understood by mainstream America - strikes many as inherently humorous. The terminology can be curious to the uninitiated. “The house is owned by whoever has the rock closest to the button,” Memphis curler Greg Roberson told me, sounding as if he were speaking in spy code.

Did I say “Memphis curler”? Yes, I did. For the straight dope (as Colbert might say) on curling, the place to be on weekends through the spring and summer is the Mid-South Ice House in Olive Branch, a National Hockey League-regulation ice skating rink where the men and women of the Memphis Curling Club host Learn to Curl practice sessions and participate in curling league play.

“It’s harder than it looks,” said Marc Hampton, 44, who was among the 24 newcomers attending this season’s first Learn to Curl session April 11. “I will never joke about curling again. If you want to crack a joke, try it first.”

Even so, “You can become proficient after just one lesson,” said Memphis Curling Club member and instructor Mark Salvatore, a few days after that Saturday night session. “Not an expert, but a participant - you’re not just on the sidelines. Imagine joining a football league or a baseball league, they wouldn’t put you out there after just one lesson. But this has a very short learning curve.” (Or curl.)

In fact, an appeal of curling is that it can be mastered or at least enjoyed by people of all ages, shapes and levels of athleticism.

“They kept telling me, ‘Anyone can do it,’ because I’m not the most coordinated person,” said another first-time curler, Maggie McGowan, 23, a downtown resident and University of Memphis law school student. “I’m pretty clumsy. I was afraid I’d be falling down a lot.” In fact, several wipeouts did occur that Saturday night on the ice, as would-be curlers and neophyte sweepers swept themselves off their feet and landed on their backs.

Tracing its origins to medieval Scotland, curling is a sport in which two teams with four players each take turns sliding an almost 43-pound granite stone with a handle toward a circular target marked on the ice; the ringed target is the “house,” and its bull’s-eye center is the “button.”

As in shuffleboard, each team wants its rocks to be as close to the target as possible. Unlike in other ice sports, the curling “sheet” is not entirely smooth; water is sprinkled on the surface before play, to give the ice a somewhat pebbled surface. The player who “throws” the stone pushes off in a crouched sliding position from a fixed “hack” that functions as the curling equivalent of a sprinter’s starting block. The rock is not pushed but released; the momentum from the thrower’s slide is what sets the rock on course about 140 feet toward its target. The two sweepers, meanwhile, use curling brushes or brooms to rapidly sweep the ice in front of the stone to smooth the pebbling, reduce drag and keep the rock moving, if greater distance is needed. Good sweepers can add as much as 15 feet to the progress of the rock, which may be traveling at a curl as a result of the way the thrower turned the handle during the rock’s release.

Said Salvatore: “It’s not like in golf, where when you make a shot, you can no longer control it. In curling, you can alter the shot.”

Salvatore, 61, is the club’s most veteran curler: He’s been throwing rocks for 45 years, since he was in high school in Montreal. He moved to Mississippi in 2002, to take a job as chief financial officer with Sunshine Enterprises, an international construction equipment wholesaler and distributor. For several years he experienced a sadly curling-free existence, but that changed with the arrival of the Ice House.

Like most Memphis ice activities, curling got a boost when a group of investors opened the Mid-South Ice House four years ago at 10705 Ridgeway Industrial Drive in Olive Branch. The area’s only NHL-size year-round ice rink, the Ice House - with an interior kept at 55 degrees - is closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Independence Day. The rest of the year it hosts Mississippi RiverKings practices, Ole Miss and University of Memphis hockey games, birthday parties and other events that in the past had been exclusive to roller-skating rinks in Memphis, including “cosmic skate” and “deejay skate” parties.

Assistant manager Mark Hitchings, 51, said business at the Ice House has increased every year, and not just because of Disney’s “Frozen.”

“Memphis went almost 10 years without a year-round hockey rink, and people really wanted this,” he said. Local curling enthusiasts began playing there three years ago, with longtime curler Larry Unterberger procuring the equipment and organizing play. The Memphis Curling Club officially began operating under that name last year. Roberson said 30 to 50 people likely will participate in this year’s league play.

Generally more associated with punk rock than granite rocks, Roberson - a deejay with the SiriusXM “Elvis Radio” station and a musician associated with such bands as Tiger High and the Reigning Sound - first encountered curling, appropriately enough, when he saw the 1965 Beatles movie “Help!,” in which the bad guys replace the rock with a bomb in an attempt to blow up Ringo. (So yes, here’s another example of curling played for comedy.)

He didn’t become a curling convert, however, until years later, “when I was involved with a woman from Canada. The woman didn’t stick around but curling did.”

Since then, Roberson has become Memphis curling’s most tireless advocate and one of the sport’s top enthusiasts, traveling outside the country to report on “elite curlers” for The Curling News, which proudly identifies itself as “Canada’s first and only curling newspaper.”

Said Roberson: “I’ve picked only two hobbies in my life, music and curling. To me, music is infinite; you never get too old for it. Curling is the same way. I’ve played with guys in their 80s who were still getting down in the hack.”

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Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com

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