I’d driven by the two-story white stucco building with the Saint Paul Curling Club (SPCC) sign on it at 470 Selby Avenue many times, wondering, “What the hell goes on there?”
I must admit, I’m suspicious of anybody who considers sweeping a sport; not even broomball players go so far. But curiosity trumped my skepticism. So it was that I found myself staring the length of a sheet of curling ice one night this last summer, gripping the handle of a stone and contemplating how to slide a 42.5-pound solid lump of granite 125 feet to the bull’s-eye. A curling sheet is about 14.5 feet wide by 146 feet long. At one end is a 12-foot, three-ring target, and in its center stands the one foot-wide bull’s-eye, or “button.” During a match, two teams of four people each take turns throwing stones—a total of eight throws—the length of the sheet, from the hog line to the target, or the “house.”
On the sheet next to me, Cassie Johnson, skip of the 2006 Olympic curling team, glided along gracefully, sliding a stone with Robin Hood accuracy. That didn’t look so hard.
Copying her, I placed my right foot against the hack, which resembles a sprinter’s starting block, propped a broom under my left arm for balance, gripped the stone’s handle loosely—this sport is far more touch than power—and shoved off. I slid a few measly feet and released my stone. It stuttered to a stop halfway down the ice. Okay, throwing a stone is an acquired skill.
And that’s just the easy part. Curling’s true challenge lies in sweeping. Sweep too hard or too soon, and the stone might sail too far. Too soft or too late, and it might not reach its mark. Too much this way or that, and it won’t curl properly. Nick the stone with the broom, and you’re disqualified. You do all this while jogging on ice in front of the stone, coordinating your movements with those of a sweeping partner at the skip’s direction.
A word about the ice. This isn’t the stuff of hockey rinks. No Zambonis polish the surface. An ice custodian walks the length of each of the Saint Paul Curling Club’s eight sheets and mists— or pebbles, in the parlance of curling—the ice. Then he pushes a four-foot-wide blade down each sheet to nip the pebbles—that is, trim the tops off the bumps. Nipping gives the surface a bumpy texture similar to tempered glass and provides traction for the stones to curl—hook one way or the other, left or right. The process of shaving, pebbling, and nipping the pebbles takes an hour and a half. Curlers are very particular about their ice.
Curling originated in sixteenth-century Scotland about the time the Scots invented golf. The Saint Paul Curling Club was founded in 1888. Back then, curlers lugged their stones down the banks of the Mississippi to curl on the river near Raspberry Island (later renamed Navy Island). It was an aristocratic sport. When the Selby Avenue establishment opened its doors in 1912, Summit Avenue residents arrived in horse-drawn buggies. Their chauffeurs warmed their heels by the fireplace in the upstairs lounge.
Today, curling’s appeal has broadened and boomed, thanks largely to generous television coverage during the Olympics. The SPCC, now the world’s largest curling club, counts everyone from plumbers to professionals of all ages among its 1,100 members. Its upstairs lounge has been converted into a dining area with an adjoining kitchen and full bar. Curling is as much a social event as a sport. Eighteen silver beer kegs line the wall alongside sheet number one. “If you can drink, you can curl,” members joke.
While curling doesn’t fulfill all aspects of my definition of sport—for instance, there’s no need to shower afterward—I was willing to concede its aerobic demands and skill requirement.
Not to mention its intricate strategies.