Every four years, everyone in America watches curling and wonders whether they could do it. Back in 2006, I set out to try with three college friends.
A paradox of the Winter Olympics is that, though almost every sport has the capacity to kill you, many of them look kind of easy. The sliding sports like luge come foremost to mind, because how many sports can you participate in while literally lying down? You know how to lie down. You’ve probably gotten pretty good at lying down. To the extent that the primary skill of luge is lying down while slightly shifting the direction of your toes, it at least seems doable. A similar dynamic even plays out in skiing, where the TV cameras really flatten out the steepness of a double-black diamond, or figure skating, which just looks like slippery dancing to someone who’s never wobbled onto the ice in a pair of skates that feel like medieval torture devices strapped to your ankles. The whole competition is a two-week exercise in the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
But none of these sports compare to curling, which, since its introduction to the games in 1998, has been the ultimate “I could do that” Olympic discipline. After all, if a sport can be competently played while nursing a beer (and not only does curling look like it can, but it seems to have been designed specifically for that purpose) then how hard could it be?
I tried to find out back in college, when, just like millions of other people every four years, three friends and I watched what seemed to be the least demanding Olympic sport and wondered if we’d be any good at it. I’ll save you suspense right now and tell you that, no, ultimately we did not become elite curlers. In light of that, you probably expect me to say that we ended up being humbled by the sport; that we learned that curling is a skill that takes decades to develop, one that requires discipline, and subtle athleticism, and, at the very least, sobriety.
But as we would come to learn, none of that’s really true. And years later — even after failing at my own attempt to become an Olympic curler — I’m here to tell you that you just might be able to do it yourself. If you want it enough, if you’re dedicated enough, if the Elizabeth Swaneys of the world haven’t completely turned you off of the idea of Average Joes competing in the Olympics with their twisted vision board philosophy of life, then you can make it happen. Because to answer a question you will inevitably ask yourself some time over the next two weeks: yes, curling is almost as easy as it looks.
We could’ve made it. I’m still convinced of that. It was only a pushy missionary and a talking statue of Jesus that stood in our way.
How my curling career started
Admittedly, my curling career didn’t last very long. It started when I was a little bit drunk (which is how most things start in college) and it ended in the taupe-walled visitors center of a Mormon Temple in suburban DC (which is not where most things end, but where more things would end if the universe had a better sense of humor about such matters).
College is a good time to begin things, to launch yourself into new worlds, comfortable in the knowledge that you don’t really have anything to lose if the rocket boosters fail. I can no longer remember who in our group of four friends first proposed that we dedicate our lives to curling. I know it happened in a George Washington University dorm room, while we watched the 2006 Torino Games before heading out to the bars. I know we were drinking Boggy Fottoms, a throat-shredding mix of lemonade and Burnett’s Cranberry Vodka, which we had taken a liking to because it was easy to sneak into basketball games. And I know that, at first, no one took the idea seriously. Yeah sure, curling. Let’s all put off the law schools we’re mindlessly intent on attending to chase success in one of the goofiest sports there is.
But it was college, when those new worlds and different versions of yourself seem more attainable than at any other time in your life. And so it was only a few drinks later that my friend Bobby powered up a clunky Dell laptop and learned that, huh, there were only an estimated 10,000 curlers in the whole country, with just a small fraction of those playing competitively. By the next drink, we’d learned that a team could end up being internationally ranked by winning only a few open events. And it was just one drink after that that we found out there was an honest to goodness curling club just a half-hour away. Could we actually do this?
Though in 2006 curling was still a largely unknown niche sport, by now most Americans have at least a passing awareness of the game. It’s shuffleboard on ice; it’s that weird sport that contains an element of strategic cleaning; it’s fodder for late-night TV hosts for exactly two weeks every four years, after which it reverts to its natural state as a completely unremarked upon and unobserved pastime. It’s also strangely beautiful, one of few sports with a viewing experience that could be called meditative. I’d even submit that a polished curling stone is one of the single most aesthetically pleasing pieces of equipment in all of sports, perhaps rivaled only by a freshly racked triangle of billiards balls.
For our purposes, though, what was most important about curling was that almost nobody plays it, particularly in the US. It’s been estimated that over 90 percent of the world’s curlers are all in Canada. And when we started, there were only a few dozen dedicated curling rinks to be found throughout the US, mostly concentrated in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Moreover, while the open house we attended at the local curling rink was packed (it was obvious we weren’t the only ones who’d Googled “curling near me” in recent weeks), we showed up a week later and found out that we were amongst the only people who actually joined the club and signed up for a league. It had been just one week since the Olympics ended and the rest of the world had already moved on.
Our drunken half-joke of an idea to make the US Olympic team depended first and foremost on the hope that no one else was actually trying all that hard to do so, and the numbers seemed to be in our favor. But would we actually be good?
None of us were particularly great athletes. Garrett was an ROTC candidate, so he could at least do some pushups or climb a rope wall if need be. But the rest of us — Ben, a modestly tall person who had once done some distance running before nipple bleeding forced him to quit; Bobby, who hadn’t played competitive sports since striking out with the bases loaded in the New York State High School Baseball Tournament; and me, a slightly above average free throw shooter — didn’t get much regular exercise outside of coed intramurals. Stepping onto the ice for the first time, though, one advantage was immediately apparent: we were young. Everyone else in the league had at least a decade-and-a-half on us, with beer bellies that made it a little harder to slide off the hack, or arthritis that flared up when they gripped the broom. If we could get a basic feel for the game, we didn’t see these people beating us.
There are two main skills involved in curling. The more important of these is shooting the stone itself, a whole-body action that requires balance, coordination, and touch. Sweeping is the far easier skill; it appears to have little-to-no impact when you’re watching on TV, but on the ice, it’s surprisingly easy to gauge the way the speed of the stone changes in relation to your broomwork.
We struggled in our first attempts at both facets of the game — wobbling out of the hack, shooting stones out of play, and repeatedly falling on the ice. But by the end of our first night, things had already begun to click. “Rookie fight!” someone shouted from the next sheet over when Garret and I faced off in a particularly sharp end, repeatedly knocking each other’s stones out of the house. In my memory, the rest of the club stopped what they were doing and gathered around us to watch the battle unfold. That probably didn’t happen, but, in general, the club members were extremely welcoming and encouraging. The empty-nesters and Canadian expats who populate the curling rinks tucked behind the Texas Roadhouses of America know they’re a strange bunch, and they have an almost missionary zeal to recruit outsiders as a result. We weren’t just outsiders, but we were young, too — prime targets for conversion.
In the ensuing months, curling became our obsession. Once a week we drove up the Beltway — past ugly government back offices, strip malls, and one giant, gold and white Oz-like fortress that loomed over the highway and caught our attention every time — and spent a few hours at the rink, swapping our typical college social circle for the doughy, pleasant middle class of suburban DC. Back on campus, we would sneak onto a construction site late at night to practice sliding on clean ice. We tracked down a Nagano Olympics video game on eBay just so we could master strategy and tactics. We even began telling people at bars that we were Olympic hopefuls, a line that almost never worked and usually ended in embarrassment.
As strange as our goal seemed to the friends and loved ones we were abandoning in order to play a curling video game for three hours on a Friday night, to us it was crystallizing into an achievable reality. Our hunch that four reasonably in-shape young men could get pretty good at curling pretty quickly was proving correct. In our first league match, we took a few ends from a far more experienced team. The next week we won outright.
Off the ice, we began to imagine that, not only could we become Olympians, but that we could become a global media phenomenon, too. Four college friends who started curling on a whim and became the best team in the country would be catnip to the human interest-obsessed media that covers the Olympics in America. We imagined ourselves as the bad boys of curling. We’d be loud, we’d be cocky, we’d prematurely start drinking celebratory beers while routs of the team from Chinese Taipei were still in progress. Crucially, we’d find a coach to perfectly complement our youth and brashness, too. Ideally, this would be a gruff, foul-mouthed old-timer, someone still haunted by the memories of the Korean War, someone who stalked the ice with one hand gripping a flask and the other tucked into the band of his excessively high-waisted pants.
Everything seemed to be coming together when we met Hank, a 70-something club veteran who dressed like a retired gym teacher. We never found out if Hank had any undiagnosed PTSD, but immediately upon meeting us, he challenged Garrett to an arm-wrestling match and then gave us all Labatt Blues from a secret stash he kept in a storage closet. Over the next couple of matches, Hank seemed to be keeping an eye on us, doling out small pointers and yelling at us if we stood in one spot on the ice for too long. (Yelling almost seems like a foreign language to most recreational curlers, but curling ice is precious, studded with perfectly frozen dimples that provide just the right surface for the stones to glide across. If you mess with that ice by, say, by holding your follow-through like you’re Ray Allen to celebrate a perfectly placed hammer, there will be hell to pay.)
We were getting better every week. We were winning every week. And now we had Hank. How good could we get, we asked him once after finishing off another team. Could we win the league? “I’ll be surprised if you don’t come close,” he answered.
I’ll pause here for a moment to address the strenuous objections from the 10-to-12 serious curlers currently reading this piece who think I’m both making a mockery of, and underselling the difficulty of their sport. Yes, it’s true that I didn’t go into great detail about just how much precision shooting a stone takes. If you’re half an inch off in your release point, you can end up missing your target by over a foot. If you read the ice wrong, if your toe drags, if your wrist doesn’t break in just the right way at just the right time, the stone’s not going to do what you want it to; and the difference between Olympic curlers and club champions is that the Olympians will hit their shot 99 times out of a 100 compared to the club curler’s 75. It’s also true that we were curling in Maryland where, even if we did manage to become club champions, we would still likely be less skilled than any number of curlers from the sport’s hotbeds in Minnesota and Wisconsin. And of course, we didn’t end up making the Olympic team. I’m sitting here arguing that it’s easy to become an Olympic curler, while asking you to ignore the fact that I tried to do just that and didn’t come close. You might be tempted to conclude that I’m full of shit.
Fortunately for me, though, someone else has already proved my point on the ice. At the exact same time that we had started curling as a joke only to see it turn into actual ambition, a San Francisco news producer named Gabrielle Coleman was doing the same thing on the other side of the country. Just like us, she went to an open house after the Olympics. Just like us, she found it surprisingly easy on her first night on the ice. Just like us, she openly wondered whether she could get good enough to make the Vancouver games in four years. Unlike us, though, she actually stuck with it. And three years later, she was competing in the Olympic trials, curling on a team that finished third out of 21 entries. She would go on to compete in the national championships three times, placing as high as fifth, and then publish two books covering the fundamentals of the sport. So sorry, 10-to-12 serious curlers, but if a 30-year-old Californian with a full-time job can become elite in just three years, then your sport is kind of easy. It just is. Accept this, and take comfort in the knowledge that this doesn’t reflect on your character or self-worth in any way.
How my curling career ended
So why didn’t we make the Olympics? There was no climactic moment of failure. This story doesn’t end with a heartbreaking loss at the National Championships in Bemidji, Minnesota, wistful regret over one misplaced shot following us for the rest of the less glorious lives we were destined to live. It ends, instead, with God stepping in to thwart our Olympic dreams.
Granted, He would probably object to that characterization. He might suggest that we kind of just got bored and moved on, and maybe it was inevitable that we would — the flipside of the ease with which you can start a new life when you’re young is that it’s just as easy to quit when the initial spark of excitement burns off. But still, I prefer to blame Him. And why not? What good is believing in a higher power if you can’t use it as a scapegoat for life’s disappointments?
The first time we skipped a league match was because it conflicted with a basketball game. Justifiable, we thought, as our team was in the midst of an undefeated run through conference play that had put it in the top 10 of the AP Poll. What was less justifiable was that we didn’t bother to tell anyone we wouldn’t be showing up. Shortly after tip-off, we got a call from Hank, wondering where we were. We let it go to voicemail and were too embarrassed to call back.
The next week, Bobby couldn’t make it. The rest of us sheepishly showed up to the rink, mumbled an apology as we officially forfeited for the second week in a row, then started but didn’t finish a hastily thrown together pick-up match.
After two weeks of forfeits, we decided to leave extra early the next week, just in case we hit traffic. We didn’t, but it would’ve been better if we had, because with so much time to spare, we finally decided to pull off the highway to get a closer look at whatever the hell that massive Oz-like fortress actually was. This decision would turn out to effectively end our curling careers, to always leave me wondering what could’ve been. The world is a Pandora’s box of possible futures, but there are any number of obstacles that can keep you from shaking the box out. Our particular obstacle turned out to be a Mormon Temple next to a highway.
It isn’t a novel observation to say that architecture has always reflected society’s values. For much of the history of Western civilization, we reserved our tallest and most glorious buildings for religion. Then we pushed those old superstitions aside in favor of civic and government institutions, and then capitalist enterprise soon after that. Now, in the 21st century, our tallest buildings honor the wealth of offshore investors looking for stable real estate to store some extra cash.
But the Mormons, man — sometimes I wonder if they’re the only real religion left in America. The palace that loomed over us by Exit 33 on the Beltway represented old-school worship. Six giant towers of snow-white marble standing attention on a hilltop, each topped with gold spires that reached up to the heavens, pitying the insignificance of the surrounding trees. It was a soaring, gleaming, fortress of a building, evoking awe, mystery, and a bit of fear in the drivers rubber-necking below.
It also turned out to have a visitor’s center. Did we know Mormon Temples had visitor’s centers? We did not, and as four lifelong northeasterners whose only connection to the Church Of Latter-Day Saints was watching BYU in the NCAA tournament, we couldn’t resist the temptation. In we went, still confident that we had plenty of time to get to the rink.
Then we met Judith.
For as much missionary zeal as curlers have about their sport, it pales in comparison to actual missionaries. “Hello!” she said, making a beeline for us as we wandered around scale models of the temple and photos of mission trips. “I am Judith. I am from Haiti. The Church of Latter-Day Saints saved my life.”
Not knowing how to respond, we decided to go with polite awkwardness. That’s usually served me well whenever I’ve found myself trying to avoid a conversation. Chatty seatmates on planes, overly familiar parents on the playground and doctors asking about your diet and alcohol intake can all usually be neutralized by averted eyes and mumbled, one-word answers. But not Judith.
The minutes ticked away as she practically pushed us around the building, but still, we didn’t interrupt to leave. How long could this possibly take, anyway? How much could there be to see in the visitor’s center of a Mormon Temple?
As it turned out, much more than we expected. Here was a timeline of Joseph Smith’s entire life. Here was a wall of portraits of middle-aged men who, while appearing to be the Chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee from 1939 to 1982, were in fact were the church’s Special Witnesses of Christ. Here was a small exhibit about, uh, cheese for some reason.
As we followed Judith and gave each other worried side-eyes, we couldn’t tell what she really thought of us. Was this an actual conversion pitch or did she sniff us out as what we really were: some dumb kids trying not to laugh?
Next, she took us to the centerpiece of the whole building: a statue, with viewing benches encircled around one side and some kind of intergalactic mural behind it. “Do you know who this is?” Judith asked.
We were pretty sure it was Jesus Christ, and we said so. But perhaps some previous visitors struggled with that question, because she then sat us down on a bench, scurried behind a wall, and pushed a button. “I am Jesus Christ! Your lord and savior!” the statue roared.
He went on to say some other things about himself, and, if you’re interested, you can probably look those up on the internet, because none of us really heard a single word the statue said from that point on. The awkwardness of the whole situation, the fear, and the discomfort had hardened inside all of us, gluing us to that bench. Never in my life had I wanted to leave a place more, and never in my life had I felt so unable to do so.
The speech lasted several minutes, after which Judith popped back out from behind the wall and asked Garrett to tell her what Jesus meant to him. The first 10 seconds of his silence could have been construed as him gathering his thoughts — maybe even the first 20 or 30 seconds. But the subsequent two minutes in which he stammered, swallowed, and repeatedly removed and then replaced his hat without managing to say a single word in English were, up to that point, the most painful minutes of my life. And Judith just stared and smiled. This was intentional. She knew we were wasting her time, she knew we were smirking through the whole experience, and she knew we were treating the most important thing in her life like an exhibit at the zoo. And now she was making us pay.
Finally, Ben cut in. He offered up some bumper sticker words about joy and compassion and we were allowed to move on. Dazed and defeated, we added our names and fake phone numbers to the visitor’s log and got out of there.
“What time is it?” I asked as we slinked back to the car.
“Match starts in five minutes,” said Ben.
“Oh, huh. We’re never going back to the rink again, are we?
We never did go back, the shame of having repeatedly welched on people who were so welcoming to us being too great for kids of our emotional immaturity to overcome. And though the flicker of the dream stayed alive for a few years afterward — we promised we’d sign up for the league again the following year; we looked up curling rinks near our homes to practice during breaks; we mused about opening a curling bar in Brooklyn, which would absolutely rake-in ironically spent money — we never stepped on the ice again.
Sometimes I think it’s appropriate that Judith torpedoed our curling careers in the way she did. We entered both the curling rink and the temple visitor’s center with the same kind of smugness, the same smirking sense of outsider superiority.
I once said as much a few years later, when I was in Ottawa for work and had struck up a conversation with a local who’d curled before. “Yeah, well, you should feel bad about yourself,” he said. “People dedicate their lives to curling and you didn’t care about it all. You thought it was a joke.”
In one sense, he was right (if not shockingly frank, given the caricature of extreme politeness that Americans typically maintain about Canadians). There are people who dream about curling, who work tremendously hard at their curling. And, despite the fact that we did neither, we wanted to exploit the sport for our own personal gain.
But then again, there aren’t a lot of organizations that exploit more people than the International Olympic Committee. They take bribes, they prop-up dictators, they destroy the fiscal stability of entire countries for years on end. Maybe it’s only right for the little guy to exploit them back.
Moreover, maybe it’s still possible.
Curling’s popularity has increased significantly since Torino, and not just as a sport people jokingly tweet about, but as a sport people play. One estimate places the current number of American curlers at around 26,000, a 160 percent jump in participation since we first gave it a shot.
There’s no question that’s impressive growth, but there’s also no question that 26,000 people is still a minuscule amount of competition compared to almost any other Olympic sport (over 1.6 million people ski Vail every winter, for example). And the subgroup of curlers actually trying to make a career out of it is smaller still. We’ve all seen the motivational memes telling us that the single most important factor in achieving success is showing up. With curling that really seems to be true.
Every four years I tune in to the Olympics and hope to see a team like us on the ice, a team that, by its very presence, takes a needle to the overinflated pomp and self-importance of the Olympics. It seems destined to happen one day, and I suppose it still could be us — curlers as old as 54 have made it to the Olympics in the past.
But we’re not so willing to jump into new lives anymore. That’s what children and mortgages will do to you. But to the half-drunken college kids of America, I say go for it. You will likely never be able to land a quad on skates, but you can do this. You can become Olympic curlers.
But, whatever you do, don’t stop on your way to the rink.