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As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1988

A Stone's Throw

An introduction to an ancient game and the newest Olympic event

by Cullen Murphy

IT SOMETIMES HAPPENS that when Americans from one of the coasts venture inland, they begin to wonder whether they grew up in the United States at all. I had that feeling a few years ago when visiting my friends Bill and Martha McMahon, who live in Chicago. Bill and Martha are the sort of sane, smart, sensible people you would unreservedly pick to be the guardians of your children or the executors of your estate, and so I was surprised to hear them tell me over dinner one night not only that they had taken up the sport of curling but also that during the winter months it claimed a considerable portion of their lives. At the time, I knew precisely the following about curling: it is a game played on ice but not on skates, in which one player slides a heavy, polished, flat-bottomed rock with a gooseneck handle on top toward a distant objective; some other players, with brooms, sweep in front of it, looking faintly ridiculous; and a bomb in the shape of a curling rock nearly kills one of the Beatles in the movie Help! I had no idea that in a vast, chilly ellipse of North America, stretching roughly from Edmonton, Alberta, to Bowling Green, Ohio, curling is played by more than a million people; that league play is intense among many hundreds of local curling clubs in the United States and Canada; or that curling will be a demonstration sport at the 1988 Winter Olympic games (which begin on February 13 in Calgary) and has a good chance of becoming a medal sport in 1992. The American Broadcasting Company has spent $309 million for broadcast rights to the Winter Olympics and will have production teams on hand to film curling for several hours a day on seven successive days.
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"It might help," I remember Bill's saying in that weary explanatory tone you sometimes hear from doctors, "to think of curling as a kind of shuffleboard on ice." He launched into a description of the game which contained a lot of words whose meanings I knew from other contexts but that turned out also to be technical terms in curling. A "rink," for example, is not only the 4-by-138-foot piece of ice the game is played on -- better known as the sheet -- but also denotes a four-person team, composed of a "skip" (captain), "lead," "second," and "third." A match consists of eight or ten "ends," which in baseball would be called innings, and in each end the competing rinks take turns sending sixteen 42-pound rocks, usually referred to as stones, all hewn from dense, fault-free granite obtained in a single quarry in Wales, down the sheet to the "house," which is a target area in the ice, twelve feet in diameter and made up of concentric circles that are usually white, blue, and red. The center of the house is 126 feet from a starting point that in golf would be called the tee but in curling is the "hack," the "tee" being a line that runs through the center of the white circle, or "button," in the middle of the house -- what in archery you would call the bull's-eye. There is a lot of other terminology, to describe such things as ice conditions ("keen" means fast, "heavy" means slow), the behavior of a moving stone (it will "curl" to the left or right depending on whether it has been given an "in-turn" or an "out-turn" during delivery by a twist of the handle, which for some reason is known as a handle), strategy (for example, whether to "guard," "take out," or "bury" a stone), and the type of contest that curling rinks compete in (a "bonspiel," unless prize money is being awarded, in which case it's a "cashspiel"). Negotiating a successful conversation with a curler inspires that same heady feeling of unexpected forward motion combined with utter concentration that I remember front my first solo outing in a car with a stick shift.

The object of curling is to get your stones inside the house, and the scoring is done as in horseshoes: the team with the stone, or stones, closest to the button gets one point for each of those stones. There is something seductively deliberate and graceful about a curling match in progress. Shortly after visiting the McMahons, I was invited with my family to attend the 1986 U.S. Women's National Bonspiel, which was held that year at The Country Club, in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Martha was a competitor, representing Winnetka's Indian Hill Country Club.) There were four sheets in play at The Country Club, side by side in a vast, heated lodge where drinks and hors d'oeuvres were being served, and on each of them contending rinks performed a tense pavane. First the skip, standing in the house at one end of the sheet, surveyed the lay of the stones and patted the ice with her broom in a certain way to show where she wanted the next stone delivered and what kind of shot it should be -- a "draw," say, to a specific spot in the house, or perhaps a "take out," in which a player attempts to knock one of the other team's stones off the ice. The skip then signaled down the length of the ice to a teammate at the other end of the sheet to indicate the appropriate turn on the stone, and then stood her broom on its end at the desired spot to serve as a target. The teammate stepped into the hack, which is fixed in the ice as a foothold, and drew a stone back and forth on the sheet several times, judging the ice and finally letting go, her body following the stone some little way on its long journey down the sheet. The skip now barked instructions as the stone slid toward her, and the other two teammates, wearing special shoes that grip the ice, came forward with brooms, sweeping vigorously to abrade and polish the surface of the sheet in the stone's path, thereby altering the speed and direction of the stone itself (which must not be touched by anyone or anything once it has been set into play) and urging it to the proper destination. When the stone finally came to rest, the whole stylized ritual was enacted again, and then again and again -- five or six hundred times all told on the four sheets during the couple of hours that I watched. The players were serious and alert in colorful uniforms that did homage variously to the sweatsuit, the Scottish Highlands, and the Tyrolean Alps. Their caps and lapels glittered with cloisonne pins that are awarded to or traded among participants at every bonspiel.

My children were engrossed in this spectacle, as was I. An elderly woman curler and member of The Country Club which is famously exclusive and lacks a conventional proper name because it was the first such club in America, seemed delighted by our reaction. "Oh, I think everyone ought to curl. And of course it's best if you start young." The woman beamed at my children, and I waited hopefully. "Now, let me think," she went on. "There must be a public sheet around here someplace."

CURLING IS IN FACT not an elitist sport. To be sure, there are places like north suburban Chicago or west suburban Boston where one can find a game mainly at country clubs. In towns like Regina, Saskatchewan, and Wausau, Wisconsin, and in rural areas throughout the curling belt, the games take place not at country clubs but at community centers or other facilities that are open to the public, and there is likely to be a curling program in the local schools. The demographic composition of a typical bonspiel is as diverse as, say, that of the group of people who enjoy gardening. The beefy man in the kilt may be a mechanic or an investment banker.

One reason curling is relatively egalitarian could be that the origins of the sport, unlike those of court tennis or stickball, are not associated with any one social class. Admittedly, they are not at least in part because the origins of curling remain obscure. Some argue for the game's invention by Flemings in the sixteenth century; and vignettes in certain paintings by Brueghel seem to support this view. In terms of rules and equipment, curling evolved into something approaching its present form in Scotland (where it was never, however, the exclusive preserve of the lairds). Today the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, in Edinburgh, is recognized by curlers around the world as the sport's "mother" institution. It was the Scots, apparently, who introduced the practice of sweeping, originally to clear the ice of snow. It turned out that sweeping could also straighten a curl and add as much as ten feet to the distance a stone traveled. Today a curler in a typical game sweeps one or two miles of ice, most of it while moving sideways. Scottish soldiers brought curling to Canada during the French and Indian War, and the sport subsequently migrated south, to the United States.

After the Scots the Canadians have had the greatest impact on the nature of the game. Canadians pioneered the widespread use of indoor sheets (as opposed to frozen outdoor ponds), which made the surface of the ice more regular and the behavior of a stone more predictable. They also introduced the practice of "pebbling" the surface -- sprinkling it with water and allowing the drops to freeze -- which makes the ice relatively heavy at the outset of a game but keener and keener as the rough pebble wears off. In the 1930s Ken Watson, the Babe Ruth of Canadian curling, popularized the sliding delivery, in which the curler slides with his stone for a few yards out of the hack before sending it on its way, and the Canadians as a result came to enjoy far better stone control than did the Scots, who continued to use a standing release from the "crampit," a rectangular plate affixed to the ice. And the Canadians were aggressive. Whereas the Scots played a genteel sort of curling, in which both teams simply vied to get as many stones into the house as possible, the Canadians adopted a lethal form of play that called not merely for bettering an opponent's shots but for physically ridding the ice of the opponent's stones by throwing shots of superior accuracy and unusual power. As early as 1903, when a Royal Caledonian rink toured North America, the Scots realized that cis-Atlantic curling had evolved into a different phylum. By 1959, when Canada met Scotland in the Scotch Cup, the first world championship curling match, the Scottish style of curling seemed like football without the forward pass. Willie Young, the Scottish skip, said of the Canadians after his rink lost every game of the series, "We were just dumfoonert when we saw them. They played the straight takeout game. It was completely new to us."

Not surprisingly, everyone started playing a lot more like the Canadians. The world championship was eventually renamed The Silver Broom and is now called The International Olympic Committee President's Cup -- the strategy behind the recent change of name should be obvious -- and though it is still dominated by Canada, it has been won with increasing frequency by other countries: once by Scotland, twice by Norway, twice by Sweden, twice by Switzerland, and four times by the United States. Raymond H. ("Bud") Somerville, the best-known American curler and the only member so far of the U.S. Curling Hail of Fame, led the United States to its one victory in the Scotch Cup, in 1965, and to the first of its victories in the Silver Broom, in 1974, and he will be the skip of the men's U.S. Olympic curling rink at Calgary. The women will be led by Lisa Schoeneberg, who skipped a newly formed rink to an upset victory over the reigning U.S. national women's champions at the Olympic trials, in St. Paul last April. The position of third on Schoeneberg's rink -- the player who sends her team's fifth and sixth stones down the ice, and who serves as vice skip when the skip is in the hack -- is held by Erika Brown. She is fourteen years old and will probably be the youngest Olympic athlete at Calgary not wearing tights.

ERIKA BROWN LIVES in Madison, Wisconsin, and comes from a prominent curling family. Her parents, Steve and Diane, were national couples champions in 1984 and have been the Wisconsin couples champions seven times. Steve Brown, an insurance underwriter, was a national men's champion in 1982 and 1986 and is a five-time Wisconsin men's champion. He also coached the 1986 Wisconsin junior women's championship rink, on which his daughter played, and he is the coach of the U.S. women's Olympic team. The United States Curling Association describes Steve as "the third dominant force in U.S. men's curling," after Bud Somerville and Bob Nichols ("one of the most formidable skip-third combinations in curling history") and Bruce Roberts ("of Hibbing, Minnesota"). Erika Brown, a freshman at LaFollette High School, has been an all-star Little League second baseman and was the 1987 Wisconsin Professional Golfers' Association Junior Ladies Fourteen-Year-Old champion. I was in Madison a few months ago and called up the Browns, who invited me out to their house.

The Browns don't conceal the fact that they have built much of their lives around curling. The license plate on their car bears the letters CRL USA. There are silver trophies and curling pins under glass in the living room. Down in the basement is Steve's Curling Supplies, a business run by Steve and Diane in their spare time. I was surprised at both the quantity and the variety of curling equipment. For example, the Browns sell about twenty-five kinds of brooms, from the traditional corn brooms, such as the Little Beaver and the Pro 8-Ender, which look like witches' brooms, to the increasingly popular push brooms, or brushes, like the Mark VII and the Competitor Supreme, which have tough, short bristles made from horse hair or nylon and look like something one would scrub the floor with. There are lots of special curling shoes made by the Bauer and Asham companies. They often have a polyethylene or Teflon "slider' built into the left sole, to assist in the sliding delivery, and a "gripper" built into the right sole, for traction. The Browns are the exclusive U.S. supplier of Andrew Kay Curling Stones, which are made in Ayrshire, Scotland, and which have for more than 120 years been regarded as the world's finest. The Browns sell hacks, pebblers, uniforms, ties, pins, and bumper stickers (curlers do it, as you might guess, on ice), and they sell books. I bought Ken Watson on Curling, by Ken Watson, and Curling to Win, by Ed ("Fast Eddie") Lukowich, Al ("The Ice Man") Hackner, and Rick ("The Mick") Lang, all of whom have been Canadian national champions. These books nicely display the temperament and world view of the ardent curler, for whom nothing, really, is as interesting or as important as his game.

I sat down with the Browns at their dining-room table, where Erica had been using pens of five or six different colors to gloss a calendar through the end of the year. In addition to normal high school activities she has an Olympic practice schedule to maintain and, in the four months before the Olympics, twelve bonspiels in three countries. I asked the family to go beyond the shuffleboard-on-ice description of curling.

Steve said, "Well, for one thing, the game is as much like chess as it is like shuffleboard. Also, it requires a great deal of athletic ability. The idea that it doesn't is the biggest piece of misinformation about the sport. It's like tennis, where you've got people at the municipal level who maybe just play doubles on a Sunday afternoon, and yet people who play tennis professionally are some of your best athletes in the world."

"You also have to understand the strategy," Diane said, "which is where the chess comes in. It varies depending on who you're playing, and how far ahead you are or how far behind, and at what point in the game you are and whether you have the hammer or not."

The "hammer" is the last stone of the end, and a good way to impress a group of friends watching curling on television is to stroll casually into the room, glance at the set, and then ask matter-of-factly, "Who's got the hammer?" Having the last-stone advantage (it goes to the loser of the previous end) almost invariably makes a rink more aggressive and willing to make tough, risky shots because of the chance to bail out of trouble with the final throw. Instead of simply taking out an opponent's stone in the front part of the house, a skip might decide to try to curl around it, ending up closer to the button. He might try to throw a "freeze," delivering his stone so that it stops just shy of an opponent's, where it will be difficult to take out because of the solid "backing" provided by the other stone. He may try to "build the house from the sides," placing stones inside the circles to the left and the right -- like a seven-ten split in bowling -- in order to make a double takeout by the other rink unlikely. The rink with last-stone advantage always wants to score at least two or three points, and the rink without it always wants to hold the opponents to no more than one.

"You'll be hearing a lot on TV about last-stone advantage," Steve said. "The other thing I hope they make a point of is how much finesse is involved."

"I've always curled," Erika said, "and I know how to do it and all, and it's not easy to learn. When you see it on TV you might think it looks pretty simple. But it's not just pushing a stone across the ice. You have to know about in-turns and out-turns and how to sweep. You have to know whether the ice is frosty or slippery, or if the pebble's breaking down, because when conditions change -- let's say tracks have appeared where the pebble's worn away -- that's something you'll want to take advantage of."

Because curling is only a demonstration sport, the Olympic competition will be limited to countries whose rinks finished among the top eight places in the women's or men's world-championship matches held last March and April, in Lake Forest, Illinois, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Those countries are Canada, Denmark, France, West Germany, Norway, Scotland (which counts, justifiably, as a sovereign state for curling purposes), Sweden, Switzerland, the United States. The other members of the International Curling Federation are Australia, Austria, England, Finland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Wales; the Russians, in a move that could arouse Cold War passions even in a liberal city like Madison, have recently bought curling equipment from the West and begun to experiment with the game. At Calgary the rinks to beat will probably be Canada's, and then the rinks from Scandinavia and Switzerland. Canada has the largest number of curlers in the world -- some 80,000 Canadians are enthusiastic enough to compete in the playdowns for the men's national championship, The Brier -- and it has a number of corporations, such as Labatt and Air Canada, willing to sponsor the sport. Curling in Canada gets money from the government, as does curling in Norway, Sweden, and many of the other countries. Unlike the U.S. women's rink, most of the rinks coming into the Olympics have trained together for several years and have already been tested at world-championship levels. The pressure on Erika Brown, who as the third curler must set up the final two shots of every end, will, I imagine, be fairly intense.

"If I miss my two shots," Erika said when I asked her about that, "we're going to be in big trouble because the end is nearly over and now all the load will be on the skip. I have to be able to throw all the shots that the skip does -- you know, the cutesy little shots, the finesse shots. Things like tapbacks and coming through ports. And when I'm the vice skip I have to be quick on my feet and use my own judgment. But I can pick up on ice conditions and I think I have a very good understanding of the game and of strategy." And then she laughed in a shy way that Wheaties should pay a million dollars for. "Compared to any fourteen-year-old, that's for sure."


Copyright © 1988 by Cullen Murphy. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; A Stone's Throw; Volume 261, No. 2.

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