By MADELINE HUGHES
Curling is a balancing act.
The dominant foot is on the hack – the black wedge at the edge of the ice. The other foot is on the slider. Crouched down, throwing stone in your dominant hand and a broom or stabilizer in the other.
Eyes up, face where you aim the stone. Look down and you can lose your balance. Push off with your dominant foot, balancing tiptoe, and slide your foot under your hips. Your other foot on the slider comes forward as you slide in a kneeling position to the thick, black hog line before delivering the stone.
Curling takes muscle memory that no one is naturally born with.
“If you don’t fall your first time, you are better than the rest of us,” Meg O’Donnell said with a laugh. “I first was introduced to curling like many people, when I saw this strange sport with people throwing stones on TV.”
Then in the early 2000s, O’Donnell’s Shelburne neighbor told her he had taken up curling. She connected the dots to that “odd little sport” she saw on television, she said. She became a member of a group that would travel to the Border Curling Club, just over the Canadian border past Newport, Vt.
In 2005, that group decided to become the Green Mountain Curling Club.
About 30 Vermonters currently belong to the club, though it has changed locations in the state over the past 14 years. The club meets on Sundays from mid-October through March at the Bedford Curling Club, about an hour north of Burlington – 10 miles past the I-89 Canadian border crossing.
The club hosts Learn to Curl clinics the first Sunday of those months. It helps bring people to the sport, but Vermont members wish there was dedicated curling ice here in Chittenden County. Ice time is hard and expensive to find closer to home, so the group continues traveling north to practice, the two-plus-hours round trip in the car worth it for a sport they love.
“Our major obstacle to growth is not having local dedicated curling ice,” O’Donnell said. “You have to really like curling to drive to Canada every week.”
Dedicated curling ice is different than arena ice used in hockey and ice skating rinks. It’s more reliable, smoother. There aren’t as many bumps and divots that can come from skates. Instead, players wear flat bottom shoes that resemble sneakers. When a player buys the curling shoes, that is the moment they commit to curling.
The sneaker-like shoes have a false rubber bottom that helps players hold their balance on the ice. When it’s a player’s turn to throw a stone, they take off the rubber sole – the gripper – on their non-dominant foot to reveal the slider, which allows the thrower to slide with better momentum when delivering the stone. Players keep both rubber bottoms on their shoes when doing the sweeping, which allows the stone to gain momentum and stay straighter on the ice.
Players score in curling by getting as many stones as close to the pin in the center of the button – the colored target rings.
It’s not like darts where the different color circles mean a different amount of points have been scored. It’s more like bocce – the team that throws a stone closest to the pin scores a point.
“I don’t play bocce, but I’ve been told it’s like bocce,” said player Mitch DeHond .
However, teams can get more than one point in a match. A point is awarded for every stone inside the rings that is closer than to the pin than the opponent’s closest stone.
People of every age and ability have the opportunity to curl. There are youth leagues and wheelchair-accessible sheets (the term used for the ice) for curlers to play on.
“It’s a sport for young and old and every body type,” DeHond said. “You can even walk with a stick if you have bad knees or a bad back. And that also extends the curling age. I’ve played against some deadly stick curlers.”
But don’t be fooled. The sport is physically demanding. The squatting and lunging could leave your legs with an achy feeling the next day. People put about 5,000 steps in on their Fitbits (digital exercise monitoring devices) during a game, DeHond said.
The first rule of the game is to have fun and be respectful. Curlers can’t block each other out on the ice, and players just have to let the stones fall where they may.
“There are two main reasons I enjoy curling,” O’Donnell said. “One – It’s a community of people, and I have just loved almost everyone I’ve come in contact with. Two – it’s a lifetime sport. I’ve played with and against people ages 10 to well into their 80s.”
She recalled the first bonspiel – curling tournament – she went to. Her team was playing a group of 70-year-old women who dominated the ice.
O’Donnell’s group was treated to the first round of drinks after that match, as is customary in curling.
“It’s tradition,” she said. “When you come off the ice, winners buy the losers’ first round of drinks. The community social aspect is just as important as the game.”
O’Donnell, DeHond and others from the group hope to see curling continue to grow in Chittenden County.
“Curlers always welcome new curlers,” DeHond said. “We all have been there and know it’s not a natural thing. It takes practice. You don’t just step out onto the ice and be good.”
New and experienced curlers are welcome to form teams of four to participate in the Howard Center Curling Challenge at Cairns Arena in South Burlington on March 16. Practices will be held prior to the day-long event with help from the Green Mountain Curling Club. The South Burlington Rotary Club is sponsoring the event in collaboration with the Howard Center, they will be sharing the proceeds.
Register at howardcenter.org/howard-center-curling-challenge/.
For more information about learning to curl from the Green Mountain Curling Club, visit greenmountaincurlingclub.org.
This article was updated on Feb. 11 to correctly state who buys who the drinks after a match.