Pittsburgh Curling Club takes advantage of sport's temporary craze



On the starting block, every amateur curler feels like an Olympian.

Then you push off the hack, a 42-pound stone in hand, and the sport that looks so languid on television -- heck, it's basically shuffleboard, isn't it? -- instantly transforms into the toughest thing you'll do all day.

Mary Ganska found that out the hard way. A few seconds into her delivery, the Crafton resident lost her balance and slid out from the twisted crouch particular to this sport, sprawling across the ice.

Several hundred gather for curling workshop

Several hundred area residents participated in a curling workshop at Schenley Park. (Video by Nate Guidry; 2/16/2014)

The rock slid on, unperturbed. An instructor asked Ms. Ganska if her knees were bothering her, a common complaint.

"My knees aren't bad," she answered, laughing. "I am."

Amid the slopes, slides and skating rinks of the Winter Olympics, few events capture the world's imagination more than curling. For a handful of days every four years, the peculiar Scottish sport so popular in Canada becomes an international sensation, only to disappear again into obscurity at the end of the closing ceremony.

After more than a decade, the Pittsburgh Curling Club knows this cycle well. So the club made the most of the sport's fleeting fame Sunday, hosting more than 400 people at Schenley Park's ice rink for half-hour lessons on curling -- brooms and all.

Ms. Ganska brought her boyfriend, Andrew Wolf, also of Crafton. He has been known to wake up at 5 a.m. to watch Olympic curling (Ms. Ganska sleeps in) and extolled the sport's preference for brain over brawn.

"It's chess on ice -- more cerebral than physical," he said. "You have to plan your shot, and you have to think about it."

As volunteers swept away snow from the ice, instructors Ian Webb and Kim O'Dell laid out the basics. Curling, like football, is a game of inches, with teams trying to slide stones as deep as possible into their opponent's "house," a serious of concentric circles.

The closer the stone lands to the "button," or the center circle, the better the shot. But as in table shuffleboard, if an opponent's stone slides closer, your point is taken away.

Playing with precision and pushiness, throwers want to land stones close to the button while bludgeoning their opponent's positions. Other players with brooms can alter the stone's trajectory and speed by scrubbing down a path ahead of it.

Neither Ms. Ganska nor Mr. Wolf will be on the Olympic team anytime soon; none of their stones made it past the halfway mark along the "curling sheet." (To be fair, neither did this reporter's.)

But the Pittsburgh Curling Club is hoping the participants' brief encounter will help raise the sport's local profile, helping the group slide toward its long-held goal of building a $1.3 million curling-only arena in Adams.

Right now, the 86-member club shares space at Robert Morris University's Neville Island rink, where the only open time slot available is at 9 p.m. Saturdays.

Board member Amanda Marchitelli has much bigger plans. The group hopes to launch youth leagues, and a dedicated facility would open the door to more outreach events. She believes the sport could hold its own against youth hockey, which is far more popular in Pittsburgh.

And with the extra practice time, the club's competitive teams -- already well-ranked in national competitions -- could go to the next level.

"Someday, I'd love to be in the Olympics," said Ms. Marchitelli, whose husband first took her curling after watching the 2006 Winter Olympics.

A club member has already donated the land in southern Butler County for the new arena. The group now needs to raise $300,000 more to begin construction. Interested donors can give online at www.pittsburghcurlingclub.com/donate-make-it-happen/.

Back on the outdoor ice Sunday, sweepers rushed to keep snow off the playing surface. Curling ice is actually pre-treated with water to encourage "pebbling," giving the surface the texture of an orange peel. The raised texture helps the curling stone slide further.

But the softly falling snow, while pretty, wreaked havoc on the stone's physics, sending it skidding further than expected or grinding it to a halt.

Ms. Ganska didn't care. After a few more attempts, she and Mr. Wolf made room for other players and retreated to the rink's clubhouse, making plans to give it another go later. They mused over signing up for a local league.

"It's nice that it's a very accessible sport," Ms. Ganska said. "I'm not the most athletic person, but if I worked at it, I could get better."


Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497. First Published February 16, 2014 10:31 PM

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