Looking for a way to impress people? Out to prove what a big shot you are? Well, use your connections to get tickets for one of the hottest sports at the Games. Then head out to Calgary's Max Bell Arena and settle in for a few hours of sizzling curling action.
Curling may be a mere demonstration sport at these Olympics, but the 21,000 tickets to the six days of competition in it sold out faster than those for hockey or ski jumping or any other sport except figure and speed skating. Though U.S. sports fans may put curling in the watching-grass-grow, Toledo-nightlife category. Canadians are fervent about their No. 1 participant team sport and like to point out that curling is a game for everyone, for a lifetime.
As proof they could point to the two U.S. curling teams. The men's squad, from Superior, Wis., includes probably the oldest athlete who will be at the Winter Games, Bud Somerville, 51, the skip—or captain—of the team: and the women's squad, from Madison. Wis., has perhaps the youngest athlete, Erika Brown, 15, a high school freshman who learned to curl by sliding Kleenex boxes along the ice.
A big task U.S. curlers face as they head toward Calgary is getting their countrymen to understand their sport. "It's a hard game to explain," says Lisa Schoeneberg, the skip of the women's team. "It's not a five-minute deal." Teammate Carla Casper says. "You start with, 'It's a sport on ice,' and they'll ask, 'Do you wear skates? Kind of like hockey? Oh, you push a rock around with a broom?' Then they'll say. 'I've seen that—once.' "
Except for the playing surface, curling is nothing like hockey—for one thing, the players wear one shoe with a Teflon-coated "slider" sole and one shoe with a crepe sole. Curling more closely resembles shuffleboard. The sport is at least 400 years old and was probably invented by Scots looking for a way to pass the time after the lochs froze over. Two four-member teams take turns sliding 42-pound granite "stones" shaped, handles and all, like teakettles across a 126-foot-long sheet of ice toward a bull's-eye, or "house." that is frozen into the ice. Ten "ends," or innings, each consisting of two throws apiece by the players on both teams, make up a game. The idea is to get stones—also known as rocks—as close as possible to the bull's-eye, or to knock an opponent's stone farther away from the target, or to block the opponents from getting at a rock of yours that's in good position. Points are awarded to the team with stones closest to the center of the bull's-eye. The stones are delivered with a twist to the right or left, causing the rock to "curl" toward the target—hence the name of the game.
Curling maneuvers range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The sublime part is the delivery, called the "slide," in which the player glides gracefully down the ice before oh-so-gently sending the stone on its journey. The ridiculous part comes next, as two teammates move alongside the sliding stone, furiously scrubbing the ice with brooms to speed up or redirect the shot, or to keep it in a straight line. It's the sweeping, more than anything, that makes curling seem so mysterious and absurd to the uninitiated.
"What's curling?" was the first question Somerville heard when he walked into a New York press conference, fresh from a shocking victory at the 1965 World Curling Championships in Perth, Scotland. That was the first time a U.S. team defeated the Canadians or Scots in international competition. The question came from a wire-service reporter. Somerville patiently answered. The next question, from a hearing-aid-equipped reporter for the other major wire service, was, "What's curling?" It's a question most Americans would still ask even though the U.S. men have since won three more world titles.
Somerville is the first and only inductee in the U.S. Curling Hall of Fame, a small museum located in the Chicago Curling Club. In addition to leading the U.S. to its 1965 triumph, Somerville was the skipper when it triumphed at the worlds in 1974, in Bern. Switzerland. The most recent U.S. championship, in 1986, was won by a team skipped by Bob Nichols, who, at 40, is the youngest of Somerville's Olympians. Together, the four U.S. men heading for Calgary boast more than 108 years of curling experience, and each has played on world championship teams.
With all that experience, the guys from the Superior Curling Club creak a little, sometimes a lot. Somerville had surgery in 1978 to repair a small hole in his heart; two years later he had to change his delivery style to take the pressure off a weak knee. Because of a bad back Nichols says, "My sweeping days are over." The team's "lead" (the first player to throw the stone in each end), Bob Christman, 45, has had four operations on his left knee and lost a spinal disk as the result of an auto accident. Consequently, he has an ungainly delivery that's more flop than slide. But he's still regarded as one of the game's most skillful sweepers. The fourth team member, Tom Locken, 44, is relatively unscathed, except for psychic wounds suffered as a high school guidance counselor and driver's education teacher.
The women's team, a decidedly younger and sprightlier group, was also shaped by medical emergency. Schoeneberg, 30, pulled the team together after seeing a notice on the bulletin board of the Madison Curling Club announcing a competition to select a Wisconsin entry for the U.S. Olympic trials. When one team member's appendix burst two weeks before the state bonspiel (as curling meets are called), Schoeneberg called Casper, a 42-year-old Green Bay housewife and the only team member who's not from Madison, and asked her to fill in. As it turned out, Casper was the only woman who believed the team even had a chance to earn the trip to Calgary. "I thought we'd be lucky to win one game," says Schoeneberg. "But Carla was Miss Confidence all the way." First, Madison won the Wisconsin bonspiel in Wausau to qualify for the U.S. trials in St. Paul last April. For the occasion the team members bought matching blue pullover acrylic sweaters for $8 each, and had Wisconsin embroidered on the back for $8 more. Every day on the drive to the curling hall in St. Paul, Casper would say, "Inch by inch, little by little, we're going to win."