Curling enthusiasts rock on Neville Island ice


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Many in southwestern Pennsylvania might think a curling competition would involve hairdressers. But even those who know it's a sport involving rocks sliding on ice while others sweep the ice to help it reach a target might find these facts to be surprising.

The Pittsburgh Curling Club actually has 105 members, making it the largest arena club in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Arena clubs don't have dedicated curling ice and must do their curling at hockey arenas.

Secondly, the Pittsburgh club's annual competition that ran -- swept or curled -- from Thursday through Sunday, is one of the nation's largest tournaments, known as "bonspiels." Forty-eight teams from such distant places as Ontario, North Carolina, Minnesota and Wisconsin traveled to the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center on Neville Island to slide rocks and sweep ice.

Pittsburgh Curling Club annual competition

Pittsburgh Curling Club draws 48 teams to its annual competition at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center. (Video by Nate Guidry; 7/8/2012

On Sunday, Team Armstrong of the Stroud Curling Club in Ontario won the main event, with the Potomac Curling Club in Maryland taking second place. In seven events, three Pittsburgh teams were runners-up.

PG VIDEO

Andrew Rydholm, 34, and Fiona Shearer, 32, of Aurora, Ontario, who are married, engineers and members of the Richmond Hill Curling Club, curl four times a week and compete in a dozen bonspiels a year. They celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary at the Tropicurl Island Bonspiel, the name of this year's Pittsburgh competition that club members say is the most popular summer bonspiel in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. It occurred graciously on the hottest weekend of the year.

First- and second-place finishers won pins.

No money, no advancement to a national tournament -- just pins.

But money isn't the motivation.

"In the past, I have won some drinking money -- enough to cover the bar tab -- and I won a watch in a bonspiel sponsored by a jewelry store," Mr. Rydholm said, sporting the watch.

Nor is this some caveman competition of pushing a rock across ice toward a target. Well, actually that's what it is. But this game of shuffleboard on ice or chess on ice, involves heady strategy, skill and use of physics (force, rotation, friction and direction) to get said rock closer to the inner circle, or "button," than the opponent does.

During the semifinal round, the police estimate of crowd size was three, while crowd size in the grandstands ballooned prior to the finals to 10, eventually drawing a crowd that may have topped 50.

But crowd size likely reflects public unawareness rather than curling's drama factor. The game also is steeped in Scottish tradition, including the word bonspiel and the bagpiper who leads teams onto the ice for the finals. Etiquette and sportsmanship demand no showmanship or open celebration. Instead, there is well wishing before each game and congratulatory handshakes afterward. It's hard to tell who won. In a tradition known as "broomstacking," the winning team buys drinks for the losing team, which goes counter to expectations.

Pittsburgh Curling Club President Steve Buffington of Coraopolis explained the rules.

Actual competition involves throwing the rock, which doesn't actually involve throwing a rock. That's the term for crouching and holding a plastic handle atop the 42-pound rock, sliding it and spinning it ever so slightly upon release to make it rotate slowly as it slides down the ice "sheet."

Now Newtonian physics takes hold and explains why the sport is called curling. The rotation prevents the rock from knuckle-balling down the ice. Sweepers, using special brooms with fabric-padded heads, sweep the ice ahead of the rock to melt it and maintain the rock's momentum. When they actually want the rock to curl, which it can up to 4 feet due to the rotation, or to slow down, sweepers stop sweeping. Teams, each with eight rocks, aspire to get as many inside the circles and inside their opponents rocks as possible. Rocks also are used to protect the team's rocks that are in scoring position or to knock opponent's rocks out of the circles.

A team leader known as the "skip" develops the strategy and stands with a broom serving as a target. The team scores as many points as it has rocks at least touching the 12-foot-diameter circle and inside the competitor's closest rock. Eight points, known as an "eight-ender," is so rare that winning team members document it with photographs.

Winter Olympics coverage has helped popularize the sport in the United States, but competitors said there are only 20,000 active curlers in the United States.

"It's sort of a cult," said Angela Fox, 31, of Cleveland and a member of the Mayfield Curling Club. "It's not super exclusive, but it is exclusive. It's totally addictive and it's hard to describe.

"There are a lot of engineers and scientists who like the game because it is a mental game."

One game was particularly dramatic. In a final throw to break a tie, known as "skips' rocks," the first team throw a rock one foot from the center of the button, putting pressure on the other team. But that team responded with a rock 8 inches from the center.

Handshakes only. Then the teams went to lunch -- hamburgers, desserts and a really big liquor table.

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David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. First Published July 9, 2012 4:00 AM


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