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Curl power: Olympic sport is sweeping up fans

Friday night is when saloons pay the rent: the night when male-dominated crowds belly up three-deep to the bar to either celebrate or forget the week that was. And, as any observer of the species knows, as soon as the typical guy gets a beer in his hand, he is overcome with a desire to watch a sporting event on television — preferably one loaded with collisions and conflict and violence and adrenaline and testosterone

Fortunately, the Vancouver Olympics have provided just the ticket: curling.

By now, everyone knows about the sport in which four-person teams take turns sliding blocks of granite down an alley of ice. To help the “rock” along, team members sweep furiously at the object’s intended path. After a whole bunch of rocks are thrown, somebody gets a point or two and the process is repeated.

For four years at a time, curling is played with great dedication in various countries around the world and no one notices. But during the Olympics, when entire broadcasting days are given over to matches on NBC’s sister networks USA, CNBC and MSNBC, the sport becomes a favorite.

Everybody wants to watch it — even in bars.

Shuffleboard on ice“It’s Friday night. Basketball games are on, and people want to watch curling,” said Gust Hookanson, co-owner of the Lion’s Head bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “We have people that are requesting televisions — multiple televisions — to watch curling. Not the small sets on the side, but the big flat screens over the bar.”

Hookanson obliges the paying customers; a happy crowd is a profitable crowd. But the phenomenal popularity of curling with the viewing public caught him by surprise.

“I’m scratching my head,” he told TODAY. “It’s shuffleboard on ice.”

But when it thinks about it, it becomes clear. “People look at it and say, ‘Hey, I can do that. It’s like bowling,’ ” Hookanson said.

As people watch, they get out their smartphones to find out what the origin and rules of the game are on Google, Hookanson said. The statistics bear him out: Google reported this week that curling is the most-searched Olympic sport, beating out even women’s figure skating.

Fans sweeping inMany decide they have to give the sport a try. They quickly track down the U.S. Curling Association (USCA) or one of the association’s 145 member clubs.

During the first week of the Olympics, said USCA spokesperson Terry Kolesar, “we have several accounts for e-mail, and they have been just flooded with people interested in learning how to curl.”

Kolesar said that a surprising number of e-mails are coming in from Southeastern states like Georgia and Florida, a region far from the sport’s traditional hotbed in the upper Midwest.

“People will e-mail to say, ’It seemed rather odd and silly at first. Three hours later, I ended up screaming at the television,’ ” she told TODAY. “When we get those e-mails, we try to figure what part of the U.S. they’re in and partner them with a club nearby and get them involved before they lose interest.”

Curling got a lot of exposure at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and again four years ago in Torino. After each Olympics, Kolesar said, the sport experiences a spurt of new members. She said there are approximately 16,000 registered curlers in the country, and her association hopes to add to that after the Olympics.

To help the process, curling clubs either have or will host open houses to coincide with the Olympics.

Coulda been a contenderNew Jersey’s only club with its own ice, the Plainfield Curling Club, expects between 500 and 1,000 visitors at its open house Sunday, according to its president, Dean Gemmell. A world-class curler on one of 10 teams that will compete at the National Championships after the Olympics, Gemmell thinks he understands what people see in the sport.

“People see it on TV and get excited. A few people think they can be in the next Olympics,” Gemmell told TODAY.

That’s exactly what Todd Schwanewede, a New Jersey man who tried out curling at Lake Placid’s Olympic facility, thought after taking some instruction and sliding some rocks.

“If I lived in Lake Placid or another cold-weather climate, I would not only take it up, but probably be an Olympic contender ... at least that’s what the event organizer told me after I dropped perfect stone after perfect stone during my trial run,” he said with a level of modesty that would fit right in on “Jersey Shore.”

Gemmell hadn’t seen Schwanewede perform, but he advised aspirants not to get their hopes up too high. Dreams of taking up the sport as an adult and making the next Olympics are just that. “That surely won’t happen,” said Gemmell, who’s been curling pretty much all his life and coached Stephen Colbert when the host of “The Colbert Report” visited the club to try the sport in January.

“It’s relatively easy to become a competent curler; you can reach that level fairly quickly,” Gemmell explained. But becoming an elite curler is as difficult as becoming a PGA Tour golfer, he added. “It’s easier than golf to become competent, but about the same to become top-level.”

Scottish roots
Curling is at least 500 years old, with roots in Scotland, much like golf. It came to the United States in the 19th century, often in company with golf. Two of the earliest curling clubs in America were built in conjunction with two of the first golf clubs, St. Andrew’s in New York and The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., according to George Austin, president of the New York Caledonian Curling Club.

Austin’s club does not have its own ice (a curling court is called a “sheet”). But it goes back at least to the 1880s in New York, where curlers used to play their game on frozen ponds in Central Park more than 150 years ago, Austin said.

To curl, Austin and his fellow club members travel about 40 minutes outside the city to the Ardsley Curling Club, the only club in the New York Metropolitan area.

Austin said that the allure of the sport is that it can be learned relatively easily and can be played by men and women, young and old.

“They do it because they see themselves as engaged in a sport where they can learn it, and if they dedicate themselves, they can become reasonably skilled at it. They can do it all their lives. That’s not true with all sports. You can curl well into your 70s or 80s,” he said.

The challenge to the growth of curling, especially in areas outside its traditional strongholds, is money. Brian Chick is the media contact for the Triangle Curling Club in Raleigh, N.C., a 15-year-old club that is one of the farthest-south in the United States.

A native Canadian and lifetime curler, Chick is a charter member of the club along with its founder, former USCA president Evelyn Nostrand. Renting ice at a skating rink in Wake Forest, the club started with about 20 members.

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“After the last Olympics, we about tripled in size,” Chick told TODAY. “We have about 60 members. We’re hoping to bump it up again.”

The goal is to get to 100 to 150 members so they can think about building their own clubhouse with dedicated ice, a project that would cost up to $500,000, he said. The 16 curling stones needed to play cost from $500-$1,000 each.

A social sport
Despite its icy roots, curling has charms for the home-centered lifestyle of the South, Chick told TODAY.

“One of the key things about curling is it’s a very social game. You tend to get a lot of husbands and wives playing together. It’s a mixed sport, so men and women play together on the same team,” he said.

Like golf, it’s also a “gentleman’s game,” with cherished rules of etiquette that call for players to call their own fouls without having to resort to officials.

And when the matches are over, there’s the tradition called “broomstacking.” That’s where members of both teams used to physically stack up their brooms and retire for a wee nip of a restorative potion.

“The losing team buys a drink for the winning team,” said Kolesar.

“It’s definitely very social,” Chick confirmed. “We head out for drinks after the games.”

And what do they do while they toast the winners?

What everybody seems to be doing in bars these days: “We watch Olympic curling on TV.”

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