Games put jokes on ice

Cool: Avid curlers say their sport is just a stone's throw from wide popularity after the Winter Olympics.

February 25, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Donald M. Wallace woke up yesterday morning confident that it was the first day of his Olympic training.

He pulled on a pair of jeans and a red fleece shirt, and set his leather cowboy hat just so on his head. Slipping a flask of scotch in his pocket, he headed out to the slick new National Capital Curling Center in Laurel.

His pronouncement was definitive after an hour on the ice: "I'm going to be in the Olympics. I'm Scottish, and curling is in my blood, so this feels like the culmination of millions of years of evolution. I've just got it."

He was among about 500 people who tried out the usually obscure sport at a two-day open house this weekend sponsored by the center's resident Potomac Curling Club. And like many of them, Wallace had only a vague knowledge of curling. He had seen the goofy-looking stones with handles that glide across ice, and heard the jokes about housekeepers and curling irons.

But it wasn't until this month - when the Winter Olympics heavily showcased the competitiveness and quirks of the 500-year-old sport - that his interest was piqued.

"I've known about it all my life, but I decided, `My God, I'm going to learn to curl,' when I saw it on the Olympics," Wallace said. "I like it for the same reasons that I like my scotch and my kilt - it's tres Scottish. But to be frank, of all the Olympic sports, I think I have the best chance of getting in on curling. I mean, how many people do I have to beat out?"

Yesterday's session attracted a mix of the curious and the committed.

James Madison University sophomores Mason Herndon and Trevor Pierce drove 2 1/2 hours to get their inaugural in-person peek at the sport that captivated them, day after day, on televised Olympic coverage (albeit on cable and not in prime time).

For Ted Wagner, the open house was something of a homecoming. The 35-year-old management consultant has not curled since he captained - or skipped, to use the technical term - a team in the junior nationals in Seattle in 1983. Watching club organizers explaining the sport of his youth to newcomers filled Wagner with excitement and nostalgia and left him anxious "to see if I can still do it without killing myself."

But few could top Wallace's glee.

At 6 feet 6 inches and 230 pounds, the computer consultant from Gaithersburg has never fancied himself an athlete. He played basketball until age 12, when his father became coach of his team. Since then, the closest association the 31-year-old has had to sports is being able to claim a familial connection to his second cousin's husband, Redskins right tackle Jon Jansen.

But he was at home on the ice yesterday, joyfully launching the 42-pound stone across the indoor rink and scrubbing and polishing the ice with a synthetic broom as the granite rock slid down sheet. He seemed to take the most pleasure, however, in the curlers' traditional hoots of "Hard, hard" (which tends to sound like a pirate's "argh") and "hurry, hurry" (more like "hooray" when pronounced with the requisite Canadian-Scottish-Minnesotan accent).

Few U.S. players

Passion for curling has never swept the United States as it has Canada and a few European countries. About 130 U.S. curling clubs have about 12,000 dues-paying members, according to the U.S. Curling Association - a paltry few compared with Canada, the most-prolific curling country in the world, with 1.2 million participants.

The sport dates from the 16th century, when Scottish farmers passed time during long, gray winters by sliding large granite stones - retrieved from nearby channels at low tide - across frozen lochs. Curling appeared as a demonstration sport in four Olympic Winter Games - 1924, 1932, 1988 and 1992 - before making its Olympic medal debut at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

"We curled at Calgary [14] years ago, and everyone totally ignored it, and we curled at Nagano four years ago as a medal sport, and everyone made fun of it," said John Bittner, 68, treasurer and founding member of the 40-year- old Potomac Curling Club. "This year, the audience has popped its eyes open, and people have had a chance for themselves to discover the qualities of the game, and people are flocking to it."

Interest on rise

Hits on the club Web site at have skyrocketed from about 20 a day to more than 500. The club's learn-to-curl program - six hours over three sessions for $50 - is booked, and organizers are planning a second course to accommodate the overflow. They're hoping the interest will translate into more active curlers for the 180-member club, which has dues of $400 a year - discounted to $250 for newcomers.

"We all love to curl," Bittner said. "We're all disciples, we're missionaries, and we're out there telling the rest of the world what a wonderful sport this is. There are so many reasons why this sport is a good, healthy, competitive but genteel sport."

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