It’s friends and family night at the Chicago Curling Club, and about half of the people here – including me – look a little nervous.
They’re here because they tagged along with a friend or family member who knows how to curl and wants to teach them about the sport – that is, how to send a 19.1-kilogram (42-pound) stone from one end of the ice to the other, attempting to land it in “the house,” which looks like a large bullseye.
The club is a cozy building that feels like a friend’s manly basement, if that basement had a bar, fireplace and an American Curling History Museum, filled with photos and curling memorabilia. I wait in line along with about a half dozen others to receive sliders, which are sandals made of Teflon that are supposed to make you slide more easily on the ice. “Are you right handed? This will go on your left foot,” says the man handing the footwear, as he patiently explains how they fit over our running shoes.
As someone who grew up in Texas, where “curling” was a term that applied primarily to my large poof of bangs, the idea of Teflon meeting ice sounds worrisome. But I take the slider and head to a bench that looks out on the ice to watch a “bonspiel,” which is curling talk for matches or tournaments. A petite older woman in a puffy vest is also taking in the action and we start talking. She, too, is a little unsure of what we’re about to get ourselves into. “I haven’t even ice skated in 45 years,” she says with a giggle. I tell her the last time I did was in the 1980s. I swore it off after my father and I both fell and his skate blade came dangerously close to my eye.
With curling, the lack of skates and, really, the quirk factor drew me back to the ice. I’d first heard of curling in 1998, when it was included in the Winter Olympic Games for the first time since 1924. While the sport doesn’t exactly qualify as “common” in the United States, it certainly has a presence, particularly in the Midwest. According to the The United States Curling Association (USCA), which is headquartered in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, there are more than 160 curling clubs in at least 40 states, with more than 20,000 members altogether. (The States has nothing on Canada, which is home to 1.2 of the 1.5 million curlers in the world. The other powerhouse curling nations are its homeland of Scotland, plus Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries.)
Chicago has four curling clubs, including Chicago Curling Club, and at least one bar with curling: Kaiser Tiger, in the trendy West Loop neighbourhood, recently opened up three outdoor rinks in its beer garden. One can only assume that a bonspiel goes well with beer and bacon grenades (a Kaiser Tiger specialty consisting of meatballs that are wrapped in bacon, then beer battered and deep fried).
The Chicago Curling Club houses the American Curling History Museum
Chicago Curling Club membership chair Chris Longee, a soft-spoken man with a kind smile who invited me to the event, introduces me to Christine Blakey, a pretty, bright-eyed blonde curling aficionado, who brought her sister and her sister’s boyfriend to family night, and is kind enough to accept me on the team, as well. Blakey leads us to the ice and warns us not to step on it with our slippery Teflon slider foot first; solid advice. I carefully step down, my running shoe holding steady, slowly joined by the slider. I take a few steps, getting the feel for the way the slider glides along and the way the sole of my running shoe keeps its grip. It’s not nearly as slippery or scary as I’d feared, when, earlier, I’d Googled “curling injury” (first headline that comes up: “Curling injury much more gruesome than you would expect curling injury to be,” referring to a head/ice collision last fall by 2006 Olympic gold medallist and the pride of St. John’s, N.L., Brad Gushue).
Over the next hour and a half, I learn to curl. First, there’s the delivery, an initial slide-and-release while in a squatting position. The essential physics of this made no sense to me when I watched it online, but turns out to come surprisingly naturally; I push off and coast with relative ease, learning to aim and send the stone as I go. Speaking of which, the imposing hunk of granite doesn’t feel nearly as heavy as I’d feared, and it’s quite satisfying to watch it gracefully drift down the ice. And then there’s the whole supporting action involving running on the ice while using a curling broom to sweep in front of the stone, helping it move along by warming the ice. I’m proud to say I didn’t fall once.
When I step off the ice, I have a whole new respect for curlers. There’s so much going on in the game – it’s a cliché to call it “chess on ice,” but an apt one – that I can’t say I’ve even begun to scratch the surface. But I had a blast trying.
To learn more about the Chicago Curling Club visit curlingchicago.org.