Looking for a way to impress people? Out to prove what a big shot you are? Well, use your connections to get tickets for one of the hottest sports at the Games. Then head out to Calgary's Max Bell Arena and settle in for a few hours of sizzling curling action.
Curling may be a mere demonstration sport at these Olympics, but the 21,000 tickets to the six days of competition in it sold out faster than those for hockey or ski jumping or any other sport except figure and speed skating. Though U.S. sports fans may put curling in the watching-grass-grow, Toledo-nightlife category. Canadians are fervent about their No. 1 participant team sport and like to point out that curling is a game for everyone, for a lifetime.
As proof they could point to the two U.S. curling teams. The men's squad, from Superior, Wis., includes probably the oldest athlete who will be at the Winter Games, Bud Somerville, 51, the skip—or captain—of the team: and the women's squad, from Madison. Wis., has perhaps the youngest athlete, Erika Brown, 15, a high school freshman who learned to curl by sliding Kleenex boxes along the ice.
A big task U.S. curlers face as they head toward Calgary is getting their countrymen to understand their sport. "It's a hard game to explain," says Lisa Schoeneberg, the skip of the women's team. "It's not a five-minute deal." Teammate Carla Casper says. "You start with, 'It's a sport on ice,' and they'll ask, 'Do you wear skates? Kind of like hockey? Oh, you push a rock around with a broom?' Then they'll say. 'I've seen that—once.' "
Except for the playing surface, curling is nothing like hockey—for one thing, the players wear one shoe with a Teflon-coated "slider" sole and one shoe with a crepe sole. Curling more closely resembles shuffleboard. The sport is at least 400 years old and was probably invented by Scots looking for a way to pass the time after the lochs froze over. Two four-member teams take turns sliding 42-pound granite "stones" shaped, handles and all, like teakettles across a 126-foot-long sheet of ice toward a bull's-eye, or "house." that is frozen into the ice. Ten "ends," or innings, each consisting of two throws apiece by the players on both teams, make up a game. The idea is to get stones—also known as rocks—as close as possible to the bull's-eye, or to knock an opponent's stone farther away from the target, or to block the opponents from getting at a rock of yours that's in good position. Points are awarded to the team with stones closest to the center of the bull's-eye. The stones are delivered with a twist to the right or left, causing the rock to "curl" toward the target—hence the name of the game.
Curling maneuvers range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The sublime part is the delivery, called the "slide," in which the player glides gracefully down the ice before oh-so-gently sending the stone on its journey. The ridiculous part comes next, as two teammates move alongside the sliding stone, furiously scrubbing the ice with brooms to speed up or redirect the shot, or to keep it in a straight line. It's the sweeping, more than anything, that makes curling seem so mysterious and absurd to the uninitiated.
"What's curling?" was the first question Somerville heard when he walked into a New York press conference, fresh from a shocking victory at the 1965 World Curling Championships in Perth, Scotland. That was the first time a U.S. team defeated the Canadians or Scots in international competition. The question came from a wire-service reporter. Somerville patiently answered. The next question, from a hearing-aid-equipped reporter for the other major wire service, was, "What's curling?" It's a question most Americans would still ask even though the U.S. men have since won three more world titles.
Somerville is the first and only inductee in the U.S. Curling Hall of Fame, a small museum located in the Chicago Curling Club. In addition to leading the U.S. to its 1965 triumph, Somerville was the skipper when it triumphed at the worlds in 1974, in Bern. Switzerland. The most recent U.S. championship, in 1986, was won by a team skipped by Bob Nichols, who, at 40, is the youngest of Somerville's Olympians. Together, the four U.S. men heading for Calgary boast more than 108 years of curling experience, and each has played on world championship teams.
With all that experience, the guys from the Superior Curling Club creak a little, sometimes a lot. Somerville had surgery in 1978 to repair a small hole in his heart; two years later he had to change his delivery style to take the pressure off a weak knee. Because of a bad back Nichols says, "My sweeping days are over." The team's "lead" (the first player to throw the stone in each end), Bob Christman, 45, has had four operations on his left knee and lost a spinal disk as the result of an auto accident. Consequently, he has an ungainly delivery that's more flop than slide. But he's still regarded as one of the game's most skillful sweepers. The fourth team member, Tom Locken, 44, is relatively unscathed, except for psychic wounds suffered as a high school guidance counselor and driver's education teacher.
The women's team, a decidedly younger and sprightlier group, was also shaped by medical emergency. Schoeneberg, 30, pulled the team together after seeing a notice on the bulletin board of the Madison Curling Club announcing a competition to select a Wisconsin entry for the U.S. Olympic trials. When one team member's appendix burst two weeks before the state bonspiel (as curling meets are called), Schoeneberg called Casper, a 42-year-old Green Bay housewife and the only team member who's not from Madison, and asked her to fill in. As it turned out, Casper was the only woman who believed the team even had a chance to earn the trip to Calgary. "I thought we'd be lucky to win one game," says Schoeneberg. "But Carla was Miss Confidence all the way." First, Madison won the Wisconsin bonspiel in Wausau to qualify for the U.S. trials in St. Paul last April. For the occasion the team members bought matching blue pullover acrylic sweaters for $8 each, and had Wisconsin embroidered on the back for $8 more. Every day on the drive to the curling hall in St. Paul, Casper would say, "Inch by inch, little by little, we're going to win."
She was right. In a huge upset, Wisconsin beat the national champion team from Seattle and the runners-up from St. Paul, to earn the right to represent the U.S. at Calgary. The new Olympians drove back to Madison the next day, laughing all the way. "My dream was always to get to the Olympics—to watch," says "second" (the No. 2 player to throw the stone) Lori Mountford.
The "third," Brown, will turn 15 three weeks before the Winter Games begin. She learned to curl when she was eight, but she was too small to shove around the 42-pound rocks, so her father, Steve, who has skipped five Wisconsin and two national champion teams and is the U.S. women's coach—he was selected for that position after his daughter's team won the trials—had her practice by sliding ashtrays and Kleenex boxes down the ice. Erika is a formidable athlete: She was the 1987 state golf champion in her age group as well as a star slugger on her Little League baseball team. Steve thinks the baseball gave her the competitive edge needed for big-time curling. "There isn't the intimidation thing to worry about," he says. "After you've played against boys, heard the foul language, the sliding into second base and everything, it just makes it easier."
Coach Brown urges each Olympic team member to record how many rocks she throws each day, to read sports psychology books, to go to as many bonspiels as possible. He sometimes has the women practice at 6:30 a.m. "Do you know how early Erika has to get up for that? Do you have any idea what that involves?" says her mother, Diane. "There's the clothes, the hair, the makeup.... One hour, bare minimum." For a taste of international competition, the women have traveled to Canada and Switzerland in the last few months. An October visit to Calgary was an eye-opener.
"We learned what we're up against," says Schoeneberg. "The first night we watched a super league—16 women's teams. They all had stopwatches around their waists. They timed every rock [to see how fast it moved on the rink's surface—every rink is different], they all had matching uniforms, and they were out there to win. You couldn't find 16 teams in the U.S. like that, and this was in one city."
One city in a land where curling is king. Close to a million Canadians are regular curlers, and those who don't play, watch. Last March the live Canadian Broadcasting Corporation telecast of the men's national championship attracted 3.7 million viewers, or 42% of all Canadians watching television at the time.
World curling officials have courted Olympic status for many years. In 1986, to curry favor with Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, they even tried to name the world championship trophy the Samaranch Cup, but he modestly suggested it be called The Cup of the President of the IOC. Curlers now see the Calgary Games as an opportunity to present their sport to the world.
The Canadians are favored to win both the men's and the women's competitions, although the American men's team is rated a close second. After that the Swiss, Norwegians, Scots, Swedes and West Germans enter the picture.
In the U.S., teams vied as entities for the two Olympic berths, but in Canada all-star teams put together by a committee competed with top national teams. The Canadians' methodical selection process was almost East German. Top curlers were invited to training camps in Edmonton and Toronto, where they were run through physiological, psychological and curling shot-making tests. Several curlers were told to lose weight or consider themselves eliminated.
The camps, supported primarily by money from LaBatt Breweries and the Canadian government, cost more than $500,000. "Our whole operating budget for a year is $20,000," says David Garber, executive director of the U.S. Curling Association.
U.S. curlers laugh when the Canadian tests are mentioned. "We'd never pass those," Locken says. The American men wear matching sweaters only when required by meet officials, and they broke down and bought stopwatches just last November. U.S. team members also have had to worry about getting time off from work to train and to go to the Olympics. Nichols, an accountant, works for a company based in Calgary, and he plans to squeeze in some business while he's in town. Christman, who works for a beer distributor, and Locken say they'll work out some kind of arrangement with their employers. Somerville has been the Douglas County clerk for 13 years. "He's a politician," Nichols says. "He doesn't have to go to work."
Despite its medical history, beer bellies and casual demeanor, the U.S. men's team is a genuine threat at Calgary, and victory there would be sweet indeed. The last time the U.S. men met a team skipped by Ed Lukowich, who will skip the Canadian Olympic team, was in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 1978. The bonspiel was televised live, and in the final game, Nichols had only to make an easy shot, getting one stone close to the target, to win the match. "I got down, I was light [didn't throw quite hard enough]," he says. "I needed sweeping. Christman and Locken beat those brooms like you wouldn't believe." In fact, they beat them too long, and the rock went too far—by 1/16 of an inch—and the Americans lost. "We've got a score to settle," Nichols says.
The outlook for the inexperienced U.S. women is dimmer, but they weren't supposed to get to Calgary in the first place. Schoeneberg, a data control specialist for a cattle insemination company, and Mountford, who is the payroll supervisor at Madison Newspapers, Inc., have both gotten time off from work. Erika hopes she can successfully appeal to her biology teacher, who looks unkindly on absences for any reason. Her father, an underwriting supervisor for an insurance company, hopes to borrow from 1989 vacation time to coach the team. "I think they have an excellent shot," he says. "But they have to have a lot of things going right for them."
"We can win," Schoeneberg says. "Stranger things have happened."