Amon wad no hae been thought mad last week in Perth, Scotland had he predicted an American rink win in the Scotch Cup, the world championship of curling, but he wad hae been thought summat peculiar. The Wisconsin rink, winner of the United States curling championship earlier this month (SI, March 15), was considered the strongest ever to represent the country in this tournament. Yet nobody could have honestly forecast that it would beat Canada, which, since the contest's inception seven years ago, had won six times running. But that is what happened, and Wisconsin's performance throughout proved its victory was no mere fluke.
In the playdown Wisconsin was on the ice for a total of 25 hours over a period of four days. The rink played seven games and lost only one, to Scotland in the preliminary contest to decide the four semifinalists. It beat Canada not once but twice, and it did so without the aid of the lucky pants which Bud Somerville, the team's skip, melodramatically split at the national championships. "They couldn't be mended," says Somerville, "so I bought a new pair of lucky pants."
Superstitions aside, the U.S. rink won for the same reason that all good combinations succeed—dedication. The team—Somerville, who is the oldest at 28, Bill Strum, who is 26, Tom Wright and Al Gagne, both 23—was the youngest in the tournament. Although their youth helped them, there were other factors at work. Since late December all four had spent at least an hour a day practicing. In Perth, the capital of Scotland until 1437, they went to bed early each night, slept between games and were careful to take only a bowl of soup before each contest. If they broke their own training regimen at all, it was with a ceremonial meal of haggis, the Scottish meat-and-oatmeal pudding boiled in the stomach of a sheep or calf, which Strum found "too spicy."
Six countries, Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Switzerland, Canada and America, were represented. In their first game against the host nation, Wisconsin lost (perhaps politely) to Scotland 5-11. The U.S. players were bothered somewhat by the type of hack (the support for the foot while delivering the stone down ice) used in Scotland. Unlike American hacks, which are sunk into the ice, Scottish hacks are held in position by small metal pins that fit in holes drilled into the surface. The advantage is that they can be easily removed, but the fact that they also sit above the ice proved disconcerting to the Americans for a time. They were throwing out of a position approximately three to four inches higher than normal. However, this presented a psychological rather than a physical handicap, and the Americans quickly overcame the trouble.
At the end of the round robin both Canada and the U.S. had lost only a game each ( Canada to America 8-9), but the Wisconsin team led the tournament on the basis of the 62 points it had scored against Canada's 55. In the semifinals the U.S. beat Sweden, the fourth-placed rink after the preliminary tournament, and Canada beat Scotland. The final game of the playdown was contested in the evening of the same day. It lasted three and a half hours and was seen by the largest crowd (2,000) ever to watch a curling game in Scotland or, for that matter, in all of Britain. When the teams were led in by pipers of the Atholl Highlanders, Perth ice rink was packed tighter than a tin of kippers.
The Scots make a knowing audience. They applaud all the good shots and erupt in a sympathetic, sharply indrawn "ooh" for all the missed ones. "I think," remarked Wisconsin's Tom Wright, "they feel worse than the man who makes a mistake."
A sport for strategists, curling usually rewards with victory the team whose skip senses the necessary redeployments first. "As the game started," explains Somerville, "I figured the best thing for us to do would be to make a kind of combination game, and I think this is why we won."
Canadian teams are noted for a fast-running game where the primary purpose is to knock the other rink's stones out. "The whole thing about curling," says Somerville, "is to try to get your opponents to play the type of game you want to play. For four ends we were lousy, and it would have been just a matter of time before they murdered us. So instead of trying to match them rock for rock, we changed our style of play."
Somerville's team switched to a drawing game, attempting to put the rocks in the circles instead of banging them out. The ploy worked because the Canadians also started drawing. The win did not come easily, but the change in tactics of both rinks helped stir up a battle that was described by one ecstatic Scot as "an exhibition of curling the likes of which has never been seen in Scotland before."
By the finish of the eighth end, the Wisconsin team had a four-point lead, 7-3. The Canadians then made two points in the ninth end and another in the 10th to make it 7-6. "The tension started to really build up," says Somerville. "In the 11th we thought we had two points, but because we didn't gamble a little we wound up with one. There was a measurement for the second one, and there wasn't even the thickness of a straw in it. If we'd got it, we would have been three up coming home instead of just two."