Dave Barry

Swept up by curling

SLIP-SLIDING AWAY: Dave Barry falls in the 'house' during his curling lesson from U.S. Olympic women's skip Lisa Schoeneberg.
SLIP-SLIDING AWAY: Dave Barry falls in the 'house' during his curling lesson from U.S. Olympic women's skip Lisa Schoeneberg. KRT

This Dave Barry column was originally published February 10, 1998

Well, I found out what "curling" is. In fact, I actually curled, under the direction of the captain, or "skip, " of the U.S. Olympic women's team. The other members of a curling team are called the "vice skip, " the "lead, " the "second" and the "fifth." (There WILL be a quiz on this.)

The sport of curling dates back to 16th-Century Scotland, where somebody -- and I am guessing this person had consumed at least two quarts of Scotch -- came up with the idea of sliding heavy rocks (or "stones") along the ice (or "frozen water"). The basic idea of a curling match (or "bonspiel") is to slide your stone into the middle of a circle (or "house") while keeping the stones of the other team (or "opponents") out of the house via such tactics as the "takeout, " the "draw, " the "freeze" and "slinging the hot bunny." (OK, I made that last one up.)

The person who slides ("delivers") the stone pushes off from a foothold ("hack") and glides forward on the ice in a sort of stretched-out kneeling position until he or she gets to a line (the "hog line") where he or she releases the stone. At this point the sport starts to look very unusual ("silly"), because as the stone slides along, two other players ("sweepers") scurry along next to it, using special brooms to frantically scrub the ice in front of the stone, thus helping to control its path, while at the same time looking like deranged housekeepers on drugs. The sweepers are directed by the skip, who yells instructions such as "Hurry!" ("Sweep!") and "Hurry hard!" ("Sling the hot bunny!").

Curling is very popular in Canada, which stands to reason inasmuch as Canada itself is basically a giant sheet of ice with things sliding on it. In the United States, curling is popular mainly in the Curling Belt, which stretches all the way from Wisconsin to another part of Wisconsin. But the curlers are enthusiastic, down-to-Earth people, and they'd love to have more of us try their sport, which is a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. Not that I came close.

I took my curling lesson at the Olympic practice facility from the U.S. women's team skip, Lisa Schoeneberg. She showed me how to squat down in the hack, grasp the handle of the stone, raise my haunches (or "hind end") and push forward with a smooth motion. I was a little unsteady the first time, but I thought I did pretty well, sliding forward about 10 feet in a sort-of-kneeling position. I was feeling proud of myself until Lisa said: "You're supposed to let go of the stone."

I was still holding on to the stone. This is the equivalent of a baseball pitcher going through his windup and follow-through but not actually letting go of the ball.

So I tried it again. This time I let go of the stone while simultaneously, with a smooth fluid motion, falling over sideways and winding up on my back. The stone, which must go at least 72 feet to count in curling, traveled approximately the length of Danny DeVito. Undaunted, I picked myself up, brushed myself off, grabbed another stone, and fell down again.

I was better at sweeping. "Hurry hard!" Lisa shouted at me, and by God I did. I hurried hard, and although the stone I swept for did not technically get all the way into the house, it certainly was on the patio. It was a gratifying moment, and I would definitely think about taking up curling as a hobby if I lived in an isolated frozen place where there were no recreational materials available except rocks and brooms. Maybe you should think about forming a league where you live. Hurry hard!

* Olympic update: As expected, Norway won the Men's Nordic Combined Snowball Fight. In a major upset, East Krzzxzkstzn (formerly West Krzzxzkstzn) won the 800-Meter Driveway Shovel. In the first serious mishap of the games, the Iraqi biathlon team crashed into a historic temple while driving a stolen bobsled.

* Weather update: It has been snowing here. Everybody is upset about this. Snow! At the Winter Olympics! What ELSE will go wrong?!


A few things you probably did not know about curling and members of the U.S. curling team:

* Somebody say McDonald's? Myles Brundidge says his favorite foods are "meat loaf and cheeseburgers." Deborah Henry adores cheesecake and John Gordon is big on pizza. Brundidge is 5-11, 215 and admits, "I fool a lot of people by the way I look." Just stay off his back about his carnivorous ways. "It worked for George Foreman, " he says. "I'm not so much of a health nut as other people."

* Never too old: Curlers love to boast theirs is a sport for a lifetime. Proof: Brundidge's mother competes. She's 74.

* Can't get enough: Mike Peplinski's official biography includes the admission, "I couldn't live without CURLING!"

* Honest, I've had all my shots: Curlers often warm up by growling.

* Do you speak curling? The rock must be released before the "near hog line" on the ice and travel beyond the "far hog line." Also, curlers distinguish between "straight ice, " which means the ice isn't curling a lot, and "swingy ice, " when the ice is curling like you wouldn't believe.