Curious sport of curling sweeps away winter blahs

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Curling. It's that funny lookin' game where some guy slides a big round stone on ice while guys with brooms frantically sweep the ice in front of it to make it go faster or slide one way or the other. Sort of like shuffleboard on ice.

It's the kind of sport you look at and think that some really bored, inebriated guys made a game out of sliding rocks on the ice. Your second thought: "Looks easy."

Let's get two things straight: It wasn't a bunch of bored guys at the local pond; it was a bunch of bored laddies on a Scottish loch. And it's not as easy as it looks.

Of course, members of the Pittsburgh Curling Club already know that. And they it hear all the time from newbies at their Learn to Curl sessions. Despite expectations of two hours of easy sport, newcomers get a workout and a new appreciation for the game.

"People think curling is a sport you can play with a beer in your hand, but it isn't," said Fiona Shearer, who organizes the Learn to Curl classes at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center at Neville Island. "When you're doing all that, it's cardio!"

Shearer has curled since she was 7 or 8 years old. She joined the club in 2006 after moving to Pittsburgh from Canada, where curling is very popular.

"It's actually a small-town sport," she said, watching the progress of a nearby game. "They might not have a city hall, but they have a curling club."

About 30 people have shown up for this night's 6:45 session, the second of three Shearer organizes every Saturday. Each weekend during the curling season, September to April, roughly 80 people (30 for the 4:30 and 6:45 class, 20 for the 9 p.m. class) arrive, learn, fall a few times, laugh and leave. The Learn to Curl sessions have helped the club grow from its original 12 members in 2001 to approximately 120.

According to the United States Curling Association, the United States boasts roughly 16,000 curlers and 140 clubs. Curling became an Olympic winter sport in 1998. The global exposure of the Olympics, said Shearer, has brought a lot of people into contact with curling for the first time.

According to Shearer, during the 2006 Winter Games, the club Web site received about 18,000 hits per day and people were lining up at the rink's glass to watch participants play. As word spreads, the learning sessions get booked further in advance. Anyone who wants to reserve a spot now must now wait until April.

"It's crazy," said Shearer, confirming that this has been a particularly busy season for the club.

As we watch, the group on the ice is Northland United U-13 girl's soccer team and their parents. It's an offseason bonding event. After watching a short video that points out the basics of curling and a brief safety lesson -- basically, don't fall down -- the group is shepherded rink-side for an unexpected round of stretches, led by Paul Hannan of Scott. He says players routinely walk approximately 2 miles during each game.

Hannan brought his wife, Amy ("She's the pretty one" he says, pointing to her among a group of people) to a Learn to Curl session on one of their first dates a few years ago. They are now instructors.

"The whole thing has taken over our lives," he said. "It's more than just a game. It's a real community."

Stretches dutifully completed, two lines are formed, brooms are handed out and everyone tentatively steps onto the ice, eager to start into the fun part. The girls and parents are divided into six groups, each with its own instructor.

I'm on a team with Kim Porter of North Hills, Wendy West-Hickey of McCandless and Rebecca Hester of Cranberry -- all moms. Art Peternel, our instructor, wastes no time and we get to work learning how to sweep. The "broom" looks like a Swifter or one of those mops with a sponge on the bottom, only the material is different. One hand holds the broom handle about a foot from the bottom, the other grasps wherever is most comfortable. The handle stays pressed close to the body. Look straight down over the broom handle. Don't sweep out -- it's inefficient, it will make you sore, and you'll end up on your face. Push/sweep hard. That's sweeping.

The delivery -- sliding the 42-pound granite stone -- is a little trickier. First, step your right foot into the "hack," which look like the blocks sprinters use at track meets, and crouch down. Then, step your left foot onto the "slider." This is like a big cut-out footprint, only the bottom is Teflon so it slides across the ice in the most alarming way. Next, prop your broom against your left side, material side up, for balance and support. Finally, grasp the stone's handle, which sticks out of the top like a door handle. Don't really hold it -- your thumb never wraps around it, you simply press your four fingers to the bottom of the handle and push up slightly. The stone doesn't leave the ice, but by keeping as little pressure on it as possible, you can slide it farther. Now you're ready to deliver the stone.

Pushing off one foot while the other is on a suicidally slippery cutout shoe print and pressing the handle of a large stone and trying to balance yourself with a broom handle is, in a word, awkward. Really awkward.

The stones slide about 5 feet. "Sheets" (rather than field/court/diamond) are 146 to 150 feet long. The No. 1 comment Shearer gets from first-time participants is that curling is a lot harder than they expected.

I take turns wiping out with members of my team.

"Ooh, that's a yoga pose!" shouts Porter encouragingly when West-Hickey lands on her butt.

Everyone else is doing the same. We are an ungraceful bunch, flailing around, marveling at the difficulty of curling and laughing at ourselves. Instruction soon ends and groups pair up for a real game. After a while there's less falling, stones slide farther, sweeping is done with particular fervor and some stones actually make it to the red ring on the other end of the court. It's another successful night of learning to curl.

The Pittsburgh Curling Club meets at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center at Neville Island. Learn to Curl sessions last two hours and cost $10. Visit for details about sessions and club membership.

Kate McCaffrey can be reached at or 412-263-1601.


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