Inside a huge ice rink in San Jose, where the Sharks hockey team practices, thirty-two men and women are laughing, yelling, and taking turns sweeping and throwing heavy granite rocks down a freshly-Zambonied sheet of ice. They are curling, and on most Tuesday nights, four different curling matches are taking place on one rink.
Curling is most popular in Scotland and Canada, but it’s had a dedicated following in the Bay Area for almost half a century at the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club.
How the game is played
Mike Greenberg is the Club’s Vice President. Most weekends he teaches up to 90 newcomers the rules of the game.
“It's a game played on ice between two teams, essentially what you're doing is throwing a 42-pound granite stone with a handle attached to it a little more than a hundred feet down a sheet of ice, and trying to get it to land in a very specific on area on target that's painted on the other side of the ice,” he says.
These round, bulls-eye like targets are called houses. Teams are made up of four players each, and each player gets to throw two stones apiece.
“The team with the rock closest to the center of that house when all the rocks have been thrown, wins the points for that end,” Greenberg says.
An end, in curling, is just like an inning in baseball. Other than that, it’s pretty much like frozen shuffleboard.
“You get a point for the rock that's closest to the center of the target, as well as a point for every rock that's closer than the opponents nearest stone.”
The teams alternate throwing stones for about two hours. Most games last eight ends, but in the Olympics and other high level competition, there are ten.
I’m watching Team Ivy and Team Dias battle it out on the curling sheet. It’s pretty one-sided--Team Ivy’s down five points after three ends, and it’s their throw. The stone slides gracefully down the ice, heading straight for another one. But it has enough spin on it, and curves out of the way. It’s this turning movement that gives curling its name, and if done just right, you can make your stone curl around your opponent's.
Greenberg says that the player throwing the stone needs almost perfect aim if they want to get their stone in the house. But after the stone is released, players are allowed to do a little fine-tuning.
“You do that through sweeping the ice with these brushes, they used to look like corn brooms like you'd expect to see in your kitchen, and now they're more modern brushes with a fabric head.”
After ten seconds of sweeping as fast as I’ve ever swept in my life, I was out of breath and my arms felt like wet noodles. It’s not for the faint of heart.
“The elite curlers are hitting the gym as hard as athletes for any sport and a lot of the difference in the game is made by how hard you can sweep and how far you can carry a stone. I like to say its chess on ice with interval cardio,” Greenberg adds.
The harder you sweep, the farther the stone travels. This is because you’re warming the surface temperature of the ice, making it slick and slippery.
“The really great sweepers that you'll see in the Olympics can carry a stone almost ten feet further than it would have gone under its own weight.” Greenberg describes.
All night Barry Ivy has been yelling orders at his sweepers. He’s the skip, or the strategist for Team Ivy.
“There are certain words that skips will yell to tell their sweepers to sweep harder,” Greenberg says. “They'll yell ‘Yes, sweep, hurry, hard!’ Sometimes they'll put those two together, ‘Hurry hard, all the way!’ Any of that stuff.”
Ivy is 60 years old. He’s been skipping for years, and curling since he was nine--since the first time he ever saw a stone.
“That was just too much for me to handle. I threw all 16 rocks and i got the last one in the house and I’ve been hooked ever since, this is my 51st year curling,” Ivy says.
Little about the sport has changed in those 51 years. The rules have stayed pretty much the same since the 1500s. Even the stones still come from the same quarry on a remote Scottish Island. Ever since curling was introduced to the Winter Olympics in 1998, the sport has been growing in popularity worldwide, especially in the Bay Area.
The final end
In the last end of this game, Team Ivy is still eight points behind. Ivy throws a stone close to the center of the house, and another one to guard it. When Team Dias takes their final throw, they knock both of Ivy’s rocks out with one hit. The final score is 10-1 for Team Dias, but it’s not so bad. Ivy, and everyone else here tonight, will reflect on the evening’s match over a cold beer.
“The most important rule of curling is that the winner buys the first round afterwards, and it is important to curlers,” Greenberg says.
Over the past decade, the San Francisco Bay Area Curling club has quadrupled its membership. Members have taught thousands of Californians how throw stones and sweep ice. Now they’re raising enough money to build their own separate curling rink, thanks to the popularity the Olympics has given the sport.