Chess on Ice
If you don’t think curling is a “real sport,” you should meet the die-hard skips and sweepers at Maine’s one and only Belfast Cu
- Photography by: Amy Wilton
By Suzanne Rico
My curling coach’s name was Joe. Dressed head-to-toe in black, looking just like Zorro with no mask, Joe was six-feet, three-inches tall, dark-haired, and fit — just the kind of guy to pique my interest in a wintertime sport that involves throwing forty-four pound rocks toward the opposing team and falling on your butt a lot. I probably would have quit the “Intro To Curling” class that my husband, Ethan, and I attended one cold Saturday if Joe hadn’t been so darn cute.
We arrived at the Belfast Curling Club, which happens to be the only curling club in the state, right on time. It was packed with people — men, women, old, young, and even one lady in a wheelchair — all there to learn the history, tactics, traditions, and tricks of a sport that requires so much skill and strategy its nickname is “Chess On Ice.”
Lest you believe that curling isn’t a “real sport,” consider my first five minutes on the ice. The sole of my left shoe was covered by a piece of white plastic that made the simple act of walking harder than balancing on a greased pig; my frozen right hand was clutching a handle attached to a smooth, heavy, round rock that I was supposed to shove 150 feet down a sheet of ice so that it came to rest on a small red circle known as “the button”; and a broom was tucked under my left arm to use as a rudder to steady myself in case of extreme imbalance. This is no simple game of luck.
Determined to attempt this advanced maneuver that has more moving parts than a golf swing, I crouched like a runner at the starting line, my right foot resting on a device called the “hack,” my left foot out in front ready to slide. I pushed off with the energy and enthusiasm of someone who can’t possibly foresee how difficult this skill is. My stone immediately dragged me off balance, my broom squirted sideways, and I ended up flipped like a sow bug, legs waving in the air, in front of my cheering, laughing team. Joe heaved me to my feet and demonstrated once again the correct curling form, managing to land his stone just outside the button. Thanks, Zorro.
Curling started in the sixteenth century as the Scots’ answer to what they probably saw as the soft, prissy sport of shuffleboard, invented by their mortal enemies, the English. I imagine one winter a bunch of bored, ice-bound men decided they needed something to get them up off the peat bog they were sitting on before they froze to death. Since hunks of granite were plentiful in the potato fields, and frozen lochs abounded, these trailblazers grabbed a few brooms made out of corn stalks, a few bottles of scotch to keep warm, and invented this game of teamwork, strategy, and skill.
Five hundred years later, curling became an Olympic sport that fascinated television viewers and began to attract younger, fitter, more competitive players. Curling was no longer considered an old man’s game. Curler Sandra Schmirler (yes, read that name again, and no, I did not make it up) was considered one of the world’s best when she led Team Canada to the first-ever gold medal in women’s curling in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Schmirler was a national hero when she died two years later from cancer, with 15,000 people attending a funeral that was broadcast on national television. Canadians take this sport seriously, as do many Mainers.
The Belfast Curling Club, established in 1958, has photographs of its past presidents hung on the wall, starting with a dour-looking A. Leslie McMillan in suit and tie. The row of male faces goes on until 1991, when a smiling brown-haired woman named Irene Blood took office. Another female curler is the current president. Ann Kirkpatrick was wearing a baby blue fleece vest with about two dozen curling pins stuck to the back — a bunch from the Olympics and one that said “Curling — Sweeping The World!” — as she gave our group of about thirty rookies a brief overview of the sport, starting with two important traditions.
“I notice that one couple in the back is taking part in an important part of the game,” Ann said, looking directly at two young guys who were partaking of frosty pints of Lobster Ale at one o’clock in the afternoon. “The winning team always buys the losing team a drink,” she continued, gesturing to the full bar at one end of the room. This little fact perked Ethan and me up considerably. Whatever happened out there on the ice that afternoon, we were going to end up winners.
Ann moved on to the next crucial curling custom. When players take or leave the ice, they always shake hands with their opponents, and say “good curling.” Not “good luck,” “good game,” or “good riddance,” but “good curling.” Apparently, curlers pride themselves on the sportsmanship and civility of their game. Unlike another popular winter sport that is also played on ice, you are never supposed to crack another player in the teeth with your broomstick or hip-check an opponent into the wall.
“It’s all about finesse,” Ann reminded us. “There’s no mad, boom-bang-crash in this game.” Knowing I could easily bust a wrist or an ankle out there on the ice all by myself, this was reassuring.
Curling is made up of two four-man teams, with a “skip”, or captain, leading the charge. Joe was our skip and a tall, skinny curler named Jeff Dutch was the skip of the other team. Having been extremely good listeners, we all shook hands and said, “Good curling,” as we walked onto the ice.
“Do your friends call you ‘Dutch?’ ” I asked Jeff as he organized the stones for play. Jeff, like Ann, had several curling pins stuck to his parka.
“Nope,” he answered, gliding expertly around the ice on one foot like Wayne Gretzky. “They call me Doc. I’m an optometrist.”
Doc and Handsome Joe grabbed their brooms, each sporting Goldline carbon-fiber sticks, and slid to opposite sides of the ice. Then, with a flip of a coin — just like the National Football League — Ethan and I began our first-ever game of curling.
Ethan got to be “the lead,” (the first player). He threw a good stone that ended up “in the house” (within the target). I was one of “the sweepers” (team members who frantically scrub the ice in front of the stone to help guide it), along with a guy named Tim, a sustainable farmer wearing a green Elmer Fudd hat who had come all the way from Vermont. I was panting and sweating by the time I finished sweeping the ice all the way down the “curling sheet” (the playing surface). Coach Joe gently reminded me that it was a lot easier if I ran forward instead of backward like an idiot. That was the first inkling I had (besides falling on my butt twice during practice) that I might not have what it takes to be a champion.
The worse I did, the better Ethan played, showing off for a trio of high school girls on the team next to us, who were tossing their long hair and giggling. Ethan’s second stone was “on the button” (right on the bull’s eye — the best stone you can throw!) and our team went wild. But even though I now had forward motion while I swept, on Ethan’s third throw I committed the cardinal sin of “burning a stone” (touching it with the broomstick while sweeping, which puts it out of play). I could tell my teammates all felt sorry for me as I slid dejectedly across the pebbled ice back toward Joe, who consoled with words but couldn’t meet my eyes.
When my turn came, I got one last shot at curling redemption. With the score three to zip, I had “the hammer” (the last stone advantage). Coach Joe gave me one final piece of advice.
“Don’t just throw your rocks,” he said, his voice low and calm. “Aim them!” All I needed to do, he instructed, was to curl (turn) my stone a bit to the left, which would simultaneously knock one of the other team’s stones out of play while putting mine closest to the button. With my future interest in curling hanging in the balance, Joe ramped up the pressure, probably knowing I had a better chance of walking on the moon one day than throwing that stone correctly.
The gallery was silent — all eyes on the woman in the black ski hat and long white parka, kneeling, knight-like, on the ice, peering down the curling sheet with the intensity of a tigress on the hunt. I felt the smooth, cold stone under my fingers, closed my eyes, and communed with its every molecule, willing it to be on target. I pushed off the hack with confidence, balancing on my back toe and broomstick, and glided down the ice on my slick left foot. The release of the hammer stone came at precisely the right moment. As I let it go, I flicked my wrist left, “curling” the heavy rock to guide it home. But my concentration and determination was for naught. I had flicked too hard. My last throw in my first game of curling was the equivalent of a gutter ball in bowling. I missed the competitor’s stones, I missed the button, I missed the house completely, and my stone ground harmlessly to a halt next to the wall.
Farmer Tim put a hand on my shoulder in sympathy and said, “Good try.” Handsome Joe shook my hand and said “Good curling.” Ethan gave me a hug and said, “That was lame.” But I wasn’t really all that upset, being that in the sport of curling, the gray storm cloud of defeat always has a shining silver lining. I left my rocks and broom behind and headed straight for the bar. According to ironclad tradition begun on an ancient sheet of Scottish ice, the other team was buying!
IF YOU GO
The Belfast Curling Club is located at 211 Belmont Avenue (Route 3) in Belfast. 207-338-9851. www.belfast curlingclub.org
- Photography by: Amy Wilton