There are three types of curlers: the competitive, the prepubescent, and the beer-drinking. I have played with all three types in roughly equal measures. The beer-drinking curlers are the variety most non-curlers are familiar with, assuming they are familiar with curling at all, and the prepubescent curlers are largely indistinguishable from prepubescent participants in all sports, with the caveat that a higher percentage of them would be categorized as “the weird kid” in school (I was the weird kid in school).
But the competitive are different. They filled the Denver Curling Center—the location of the trials for the Youth Olympic Games—with a mysterious energy: the energy of people who know they are very good at what they do but are also aware that the majority of society does not know, let alone care. They filled that building with expressions of confidence—throwing stones Manitoba-style, wielding brooms splattered with Olympian signatures, nodding at skips last seen at Nationals in Bemidji. But the fear is palpable as well, if you know where to look for it.
So it’s a Sunday in October in Denver, Colorado. What time is it? I have no clue. What’s the weather like? Probably cold and sunny; it’s always cold and sunny here. The ice is slower than it should be. That I do know. It’s especially swingy, too. We’re playing for our spot in the Youth Olympics. No one expected our team or George’s team to be here; my team had never even played together before the Trials, due to geographic challenges. Tuma and Wendling were the favorites, and yet we’d beaten them in the semis; we were third seed and George’s team fourth.
My skip (which roughly translates to captain—think the skipper on a boat), Brendan, used to play vice-skip for Chris, who’s playing second on George’s team. Brendan and Chris grew up together in Wisconsin, where high schools have their own curling teams and playdowns for Nationals are almost as exciting as Nationals. Chris acts too nice. He’s shaking my hand as though he actually knows my name; Brendan’s Midwestern decorum has stopped him from talking shit about Chris, but I’m wary of him anyway, because there are only a few people I know more sensitive and empathetic on the ice rink than Brendan, and Brendan stopped playing with him because of “personal disagreements.”
After shaking hands we get on the ice. I have a wobbly first practice slide, which is not typical for me, but George wobbles more (also not typical for him), so I feel better about it. We all slide again and this time no one wobbles. I get in the hack to throw my first stone; I play lead, which means I throw, then our seconds, then the vices, then the skips.
I hog it—meaning my shot’s too short to be in play. I can’t get ahold of my weight; the ice is so slow and I’ve spent all week trying to throw light and easy.
My second stone is actually nice. A biting centerline guard—meaning we control the center of the target, called the house. Our second, Philip, hides his rock behind my rock, the shot called the draw. I remind myself we’re doing well, everything is going great—Philip doesn’t look like he’s slept, but he’s making shots. Julia falls short on one or two stones, the first time I’ve seen her make mistakes that week, but she’s still playing okay. Brendan’s quick on the skip calls. His expression is unreadable from 150 feet away, but I want to believe he’s smiling.
When he takes his first skip’s shot the hand holding his broom is shaking.
Shit. He’s not going to make the shot.
He makes the shot.
When we trained in Minnesota together over the summer—just Brendan and me for over six hours every day for five days on competition-standard ice right next to Olympic wheelchair curlers, nationally ranked mixed doubles teams, and drunk corporate team-building participants, who watched us from the Chaska Curling Center’s restaurant—we played mixed doubles.
Before Chaska, I coached myself. I played as many adult leagues as my parents were willing to drive me to—which was Wednesdays with middle-aged women, Fridays for the couples’ league with my friend Evan (people like to joke we’re married, but usually we just try not to kill each other), Saturdays for mixed doubles with Evan again, and Sundays for the junior league with the “junior league coordinator.”
I call her the junior league coordinator, not the coach, because she doesn’t coach, and because I’ve been playing longer than she has, so I’m hypothetically more qualified anyway. All the kids I played with on Sundays were younger and less experienced than me on the ice; when I first started curling, I was nine years old, and all the other junior curlers were at least fourteen. The current junior league coordinator was hired when I was eleven; the old coach had decided to leave because all her students (except me) had graduated high school. In any case, our current junior league coordinator, who began coordinating only a year after learning to curl, definitely hates me—other teams we meet at bonspiels often ask why I’m not a skip and why her son, who’s been playing half as long as me, is. Every year she gives out participation awards, and while other people get things like “best delivery,” “best at hits,” “best sweeping,” and “most improved,” I always get things like “team spirit” and “friendliest.” What’s more, she addressed my participation award last season as “for his best team spirit,” and somehow—who knows how because it sure wasn’t my typo—my name was everywhere at the Nashua Curling Club Junior Bonspiel as “Lard Katz.”
So I’m not used to playing against people who are considerably better players than me, nor am I used to having the time to actually train—that is, practice the same shots over and over and over again.
My shot of choice that week in Minnesota was the tick, a somewhat niche curling shot that has since been outlawed because, despite the incredible difficulty of making it, it is highly effective. The first time I made it was an accident, but I realized it really made Brendan get worked up. I realized I could beat him if I made ticks, because then he would be forced to guard, and if his guard wasn’t perfect, I could hit out his counting stones. Now, I didn’t always make those hits, and he often made those guards, but it was the best strategy I had and it won me more than a couple ends (a.k.a rounds—literally throwing all the stones from one end of the rink to the other) against a nationally ranked son-of-an-ex-professional.
Exactly why this particular shot is useful is a bit more complicated curling strategy. If you’ve ever watched a game you’ll know that the first couple of stones thrown aren’t usually in scoring range. This is on purpose. If you put a stone in scoring range, the other team will usually just hit it out. If you put a stone outside scoring range, then you can put your scoring stones behind it and it’s much more difficult—if done right, essentially impossible—for the opposing team to hit out your stones.
Then, you may ask, why wouldn’t the other team just hit out these guards (i.e., the stones just in front of the house, or target) before you can put a stone behind it? There’s something called the “five-rock rule” which mandates that until five stones have been thrown, no stones in the free guard zone (the area outside of the house but inside the area that counts as “in play”) can be removed from play. If one of those stones does go out of play, the stone is replaced and the offending rock is removed. But, if you gently shift that guard over to the side so that it’s still in play but essentially useless, then you can get by the five-rock rule. The only thing is that it’s a tough shot and doesn’t even occur to some skips. However, it also happens to be my specialty, and it messes with the opponent’s expectations.
By the fourth end we were feeling great. I put up a neat centerline guard, we drew and drew behind it, and we managed to take three points thanks to Brendan’s excellent hammer takeout—meaning he removed the opponents’ counting shot with just one of his own after it was too late for them to do anything about it. After the fourth end break, in which our coach—Brendan’s dad—told us to play the same strategy as before, mainly because George’s draws weren’t strong and ours were, we did indeed proceed to do the same thing. Except that George did make his draw, so he got a point. We took one point with the hammer in the next end. Then, fearing a high scoring end would bring our precarious lead down, Brendan decided for us to return to his favorite strategy: hit and hit until there’s nothing left, and hope George wouldn’t make his draw.
But then George did make his draw again, laughing bizarrely as he did so—I swear he only stopped smiling during that game to yell alternately “SWEEP” and “UP” (i.e., don’t sweep)—and even though his vice missed about half of her hits, George’s follow-up draw was good enough to let them take another point. The hit game was making me nervous. This was the point in the game when I started hating it—there’s so little room for error when making hits, and we were doing well at the draw game. Every time we had hammer, we scored, and more than they did. Also, in a hit game, positions are swapped. Philip and Julia are throwing the hits and Brendan is drawing. In the draw game, Philip and Julia draw and Brendan guards with his first stone and hits with his second. That Brendan is better at hits and Julia better at draws is indisputable.
Brendan’s draw in the eighth end was heavy. Like, way too heavy. The ends were flying by with all of these thick, fast hits. We were in a tie, thankfully with hammer (meaning we got to throw the last shot of the end), and we just needed to hit everything out and then draw for a win. Easy enough, right?
I missed my hit. The opposing vice finally made a few shots and now we really had no room for error. By the time it came to Brendan’s hammer shot, George had a stone biting—just touching—the eight-foot ring, and no protection. So throw a draw closer to the center, or hit it out, and we win. Brendan could hit anything he wanted whenever he wanted. He chose to go for the draw, figuring it safer. Strategically, it was.
As he slid out of the hack, smooth and graceful in that textbook delivery of his, I saw his broom hand trembling. It wasn’t just trembling with fear, though. It was trembling as his broomhead ran over the ice. Why was it shaking so much? And the rock was rumbling. Rocks rumble and brooms shake when stones are hit weight, not draw weight.
I flashed back to the moment when one of Brendan’s stones had picked, in an earlier game—picking means the stone shifts significantly off its trajectory due to an imperfection in the ice, the stone, or some miniscule debris lying in its path—and so spooked was he that I agreeably threw stone #7 every end afterward and let him throw #2, even though #7 is usually a skip’s rock and #2 a lead’s rock.
Maybe this stone was cursed too.
No, it wasn’t the stone that was cursed, and neither was #7—I’d never had an issue with it when I threw it anyway. “3, 2, 1,” Philip muttered, the first audible phrase I’d heard from him in about ten minutes. For a moment I didn’t understand. Then I realized that he was reading the numbers off his stopwatch.
Brendan had just thrown a 3.21-second rock, which meant that the time it took for the rock to move from the backline to the near hogline was 3.21 seconds. On speedy competition ice, even when it was unusually slow, 3.21 seconds is the speed of a double takeout. As in, able to hit out two stones completely out of play. And Brendan was not hitting any stones.
I registered somewhere that we had lost the final, we were not going to qualify for the Youth Olympics, and it was because Brendan threw hit weight for a draw. It was like he’d brought a backhoe to plant daisies.
“WHOA! No cleaning!”
Julia was begging us not to sweep even for debris that could throw the stone off its trajectory because our only hope, at this point, was that some dirt would appear. We were now praying for a curse.
No dirt appeared. The rock cooked along through the house and bounced off the backboards. Brendan dropped his broom, walked to the sidelines, stared at his feet, went back to get his broom, shook hands with the other team, and then retired to the men’s locker room for a good 45 minutes.
Julia and I went and sat at our team table and peeled clementines that we didn’t want to eat. Brendan’s dad was walking around shaking hands with everyone and smiling a small, sad smile. Philip’s mom kept saying how it was “still our game,” whatever that meant. Meanwhile, Philip sat in a dark corner and, head in hands, cried. Julia and I listened and pretended not to watch as the other team huddled around an adjacent table with the Olympic officials, their parents, and their fancy Olympic coach to sign important-looking papers with all kinds of seals. At some point, I roused myself and brought my broom over to George’s table, so his team could sign it, and then I found my teammates to sign it as well. Julia did so readily, chugging her third energy drink since the game. Philip at first refused, said his handwriting was bad, cited his weak grades, told me he was mentally slow, asked me to help him with his college essays (he never sent them), and then acquiesced, tearful, putting his head back in his hands after I walked away.
(I did not find out his college plans until his mom told my mom.)
Brendan’s dad had to get him from the locker room. Brendan’s eyes were red—but I felt like we locked eyes for the first time.
“Thanks for playing all those ticks. In mixed doubles.”
He signed my broom. “I’ll get better at losing, I promise.”
In the airport at bag check we ran into Mr. Olympic Coach. It was two o’clock in the morning.
“I didn’t expect to get to the final,” I told him.
“And I didn’t expect to end up with a bronze. You can’t expect anything, my dear.”
The bag check woman interrupted, “Sir, your bag is too heavy. What do you have in here, golf clubs?”
I felt strangely protective of Mr. Olympic Coach. “He’s an internationally ranked curler. Those are curling brooms!”
“I don’t care what they are, I’m charging you for an oversize bag.”
As Mr. Olympic Coach paid for his oversized bag I couldn’t tell if he was smiling or grimacing; all I knew is he wouldn’t look me in the eye. I wondered how it must have felt to win—but only bronze, and only curling, after all.
Curling is a mind sport just as much as an athletic sport. People often laugh at curlers. I’m fairly used to it by now, because yes, there are a lot of “out-of-shape” curlers (although only rarely at the top levels). And yes, way back when, when Canada was the only country any good at the sport, Olympians would sometimes have beers on the ice.
But it’s also much more than that. Because now it is competitive, no matter where you go, and yes, the balmiest nations will likely always have players that look like they don’t know why they’re sliding around on an ice rink, but there are Olympians like that in every sport. And yes, at my curling club there are usually beers on the ice. But no, it isn’t easy. And yes, it requires skill, and yes, it requires athleticism. If it were only a mind game, George, with his almost offensive jubilance in the face of both successful and unsuccessful shots, would be king of the curling world—but he’s not; I don’t know an American curler who wasn’t ashamed of our poor performance at the Youth Olympics that year (we only beat Latvia and our creaming by Japan was a true embarrassment). If it were only athleticism then Jared Allen and the other derpy ex-NFL players trying to get to the Olympics right now (incidentally, their coach is the same Mr. Olympic Coach as George’s team) would have already gotten a gold medal at Worlds (funny story, they came to a cashspiel—a curling event where you can earn a lot of cash—at my curling club, and lost to a bunch of experienced but undeniably middle-aged, only semi-athletic men whom I play with in the Saturday afternoon league. So much for the NFL and Mr. Olympic Coach.). And if curling were only skill then Brendan would always beat me in mixed doubles and wouldn’t have missed that shot in the final. It’s not just teamwork, either, because then Team Wendling, who we beat in the semis and have been playing together for years, wouldn’t have lost to my team—who had never played as a full team before the Trials. The fact is that it’s all of these things—mind, body, and teamwork—and that’s the beauty of the sport.