Easy to be swept away by the fun of curling

February 14, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

LOOKING TO GET into the spirit of the Winter Olympics - and unable to replicate the back-room deals of a figure-skating judge - I decided to cut loose the other night with a little curling.

You know what curling is, right? That goofy-looking sport where they slide that big stone across the ice and two guys sweep furiously like they're neurotic clean-freaks?

Well, after two hours with the Potomac Curling Club - yes, there really is such a thing; they have more than 100 members - at the National Capital Curling Center in Laurel, I can tell you this much:

a) Curling is way harder than it looks on TV. You need the touch of a safecracker to slide a 42-pound "stone" and land it in the "house," or target area, some 140 feet away.

b) It's way more physical, too. In a standard two-hour match, a curler walks up to two miles and sweeps his butt off, if you'll pardon the expression.

c) It's a helluva lot more fun than you'd think.

Another thing I discovered is that curlers have a terrific sense of humor. Then again, they have to. They've heard all the hair-curling and broom jokes they can stand. So to not kill the next person who asks them which kind of curling iron they use, they've learned to laugh a whole lot.

Here's another fact about curlers: They actually watch curling on TV, if you can believe that.

Bob Pelletier, the club president, was up until midnight recently watching the U.S.-Canada Olympic men's match on MSNBC.

And John Bittner, the PCC treasurer, was up at 6 a.m. watching the repeat broadcast. Six a.m.! The only things that get me up at that hour are flames licking through the ceiling and firefighters banging on the door.

Actually, being a golfer - well, sort of - I can relate to watching curling on TV.

After all, I watch golf on TV. And to the non-golfer, the only thing more boring that playing golf is watching it on TV.

Only at least with TV golf, you get to see some spectacular scenery and wildlife - your blue herons, your pelicans, your flamingos and etc.

With curling, you're basically looking at a dull stretch of ice that could be in Hibbing, Minn. or Hoboken, N.J.

And the only wildlife you see is if someone in the stands smuggled in a Heineken.

Anyway, I took a curling lesson given by a nice man named Stephen Provasnik, who's been curling for a dozen years.

Stephen's wife, Kristi Provasnik, also curls. She said curling is a great lifetime sport that's enjoyed by men and women of all ages.

Curling is all about competition, she said, but it's also about camaraderie. "It's about walking into a bar in Milwaukee and everyone yells: `Look, it's the Provasniks!' "

What I found especially cool about Stephen Provasnik was that he actually wore curling shoes, which I didn't know even existed.

One shoe had a plastic sole, enabling him to slide on the ice. The other shoe had a rubber sole for gripping. Look, if you start seeing Nike commercials starring curlers, you'll know the sport has really arrived.

Then again, I wouldn't hold my breath.

By the way, if you're wondering what that sweeping business is all about, John Bittner offered this explanation: "You're warming the ice, polishing the surface to make the stone travel further."

Bittner said curlers used to wonder if sweeping was "just something to keep you from freezing your butt off."

But a study done some years ago by the engineering departments at MIT and the University of Washington proved that sweeping did indeed alter the speed and direction of the stone and could "stretch" it by as much as 15 feet.

This is the kind of stuff curlers like to kick around over post-match beers. But, hey, it's no more eye-glazing than a golfer taking you stroke by stroke through his double-bogey on the 14th hole.

Anyway, my group lesson included a man named Pierre and a woman named Rachel. Pierre said he grew up in Ottawa, Canada, where curling is the No. 1 participant sport. (Curling actually originated in Scotland 500 years ago, but there is so little to do in Canada that the sport was immediately embraced there.)

In Canada, "every little town has a curling club," said Pelletier, who also grew up there. Earlier he had told me: "When a child is born in Canada, he's whacked on the bottom and given one minute to decide if he's a hockey player or a curler."

Pierre's curling background was evident and he drew praise from Provasnik ("That's a nice balanced delivery!") for his form.

I didn't catch where Rachel was from - hey, you try rolling a 42-pound stone and taking notes at the same time. But she was a rank beginner like me, only with better knees, and neither one of us was headed for the Curling Hall of Fame.

During our lesson, a women's league match was taking place on the next "sheet" and we occasionally heard shouts of: "Yes! Yes! Hurry! Hurry!"

Let's face it, this is not something you hear a woman shout very often.

In fact, a woman doesn't usually shout this unless she's driving the getaway car and her accomplice just burst out of a bank with bags of money.

Or unless she's fooling around with someone when her husband pulls into the driveway.

But in this case, the shouts were from a "skip" - sort of the quarterback of a curling team - directing the other curlers to sweep harder.

Two thousand miles from Salt Lake City, they were having their own Olympic Moment.

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