When I was nine years old, an old man named Alph Winter taught me how to curl. Even though I was small and inflexible and knock-kneed and easily cold, he told me I was a natural. He told me I had the Spirit of Curling (a term referring to the policy of courtesy employed by curlers on and off the ice). I definitely didn’t have it, but when he told me I did, I believed him. He was Old Man Winter, after all. And in a way he was right, because once he told me that, I started to believe it; once I believed it, my Spirit of Curling grew more and more.
Because we played in different leagues, I’ve rarely seen Mr. Winter in the intervening years. I’ve since learned he has daughters, at least two, and a wife, and that he worked in a bank but is retired now. I’ve heard he speaks French. I’ve heard he’s lived in Canada. I’ve also heard he grew up just a mile away from where I grew up, even though most adults in the area are transplants. I had one conversation with him when I was helping prep the ice for the Yale team’s College Curling Spiel, because he was supervising the event. He asked me if I wanted to curl at Yale one day, and I said I might, and that I was worried about how I would continue curling in college if my future school didn’t have a team. He told me not to worry about that. It turns out Princeton now has a team, and although the team’s birthing process has been painful at times, my love of curling has pushed us through.
The other time I ran into Mr. Winter was at another Learn-to-Curl event. But that time I wasn’t learning, I was teaching—specifically, I was teaching a class that consisted of a Chicagoan baseball pitcher, a French-Canadian diplomat, a retired librarian in her eighties, and my mother. My mother was a dancer for twenty years, a 4.0 tennis player, a Pilates teacher, and then a very restless ex-athlete with two slip discs and a fragile lower back. I only convinced her to try curling after I reminded her I had once lost in mixed doubles to a double-amputee Vietnam war vet.
And then there was Mr. Winter, looking frozen in time from the last time I’d seen him.
My mother fell over because, for the third time in a row, she was leaning on her rock, and when she let the rock go, she had nothing to lean on. I could tell she was getting frustrated; curling looks easier than it is, and after years of watching me play, she’d expected more of herself. I didn’t know what to say to comfort her, so I just asked if she was okay—she was—and helped Mr. Chicagoan baseball pitcher line himself up properly with the target. He said he was a retired athlete too, but it was clear he hadn’t retired too long ago. He wasn’t very flexible, but he hadn’t fallen over once. With this rock, he actually managed to get it into play.
“How did he do that?” my mother asked me.
“It’s easier to get stuff in play when you’re bigger,” I told her, which isn’t wrong.
“But you’re not very big,” she told me accusingly.
Mr. Winter sidled up behind us. “But she has the Spirit of Curling. I can tell you do, too.”
My mother believes in spirits, both figurative and literal, even less than I do. When he said this she frowned, although she also didn’t attempt to contradict him.
“Were you a dancer?” he asked her.
“Yes.” She sounded suspicious.
“I could tell, because you’re very flexible. Once you figure out proper form, you’ll be fine with balancing. You’ll get it in no time.”
My mother needed more specific encouragement than nine-year-old me, but it was no less effective. We got down on the ice together and I showed her the proper lunge, or an approximation of it. After a few minutes she had it figured out. Of course Mr. Winter was right. My mother did not ultimately get any stones into play that day, but she did not fall again a single time. On the car ride home we made fun of the French-Canadian diplomat, who had in fact been the biggest of all my students, and yet the least capable of pushing a rock literally anywhere. (That said, he’d shown up in skinny jeans. Never curl in skinny jeans.)
When COVID-19 shut the world down, I was five days out from a plane flight to Wisconsin for U18 Nationals. I was at a women’s league night when my principal sent me an email telling me everything would be online, for at least two weeks. Instead of our regular hour-long broomstacking (post-curling game social hour), the women’s league chair passed out individual chip bags and we bumped elbows instead of shaking hands. I don’t remember who won, I just remember I was home early after a curling night for the first time in a long while.
For the next 19 months, I would not step back on a sheet of ice. I would take an online curling fitness course, I would sit in my curling lunge position and listen to happy music while my hamstrings screamed at me, I would find myself leaning into the sweeping position when I vacuumed the same square feet I hadn’t left in days, weeks, months, over a year. I would have vivid curling-related dreams. I would rewatch the Youth Olympic Games. I would force my dad, who likes chess, to talk strategy with me (he was surprisingly willing; we were all bored). I would even convince my brother he should have come with me to the Youth Olympic Trials, that he’d really missed out. I would send my best curling friend a drawing I’d done of him and pretend our text conversations were as fun as they were on the ice. I would play my curling board game with myself.
And then, as every curling thought made me wince more and more, as the iceless weeks stretched out into infinity like desert dunes, I would stop thinking about curling altogether.
I found value in other things. My mother and I did workout videos together that did not aim to target specific curling-related muscles (most of which are useless in daily life). I started cycling more often. I improved my splits but didn’t work on my lunges. I had conversations with my dad about books. I listened to Anna Karenina while vacuuming. I watched the German TV show Dark. I even convinced my brother he needed to take up bread baking with me and he actually did. My bone-dry texts with my best curling friend centered around his looming college applications, and the fact that he didn’t want to do them.
Then, quite suddenly, I found out I would be able to curl: all I needed to be was a member of the USWCA (U.S. Women’s Curling Association), which I am; a woman, which I am; and back in Connecticut on a particular weekend that just so happened to be over fall break. I showed up to the 2021 Women’s All-American Bonspiel in my familiar curling pants, my rattiest Princeton sweater, and my Princeton CJL hat. My mother insisted I don all the gear I’d left at home just in case the other curlers wondered where I went to school (no one wondered).
Always in the unlikeliest of places, there was Mr. Winter at the Women’s All-American, wearing a tattered surgical mask and holding a clipboard.
“I volunteered to organize as an excuse to watch my daughter play,” he told me. I was shocked to realize that his daughter was one of the women I’d played with in the women’s league for years.
He followed me out on the ice. Ice prep had finished, but everyone was still inside chatting. I couldn’t tell you why I went out on the ice, pretty much directly, saying hello to only one or two of the women.
I stood there looking at the ice.
Mr. Winter said, “Well? Cool your slider! The ice is good this year.”
I obeyed, rubbing my room-temperature sliding shoe against the ice in an out-of-play zone, so that if it melted the ice, it wouldn’t affect play—just another feature of curling courtesy.
“Well? Take a practice slide!”
I looked at him, aghast. “But I haven’t even warmed up—without a rock—?”
He cut me off, “Come on. You know you can slide. You know you’ve still got it in you.”
I realized my broom was already in position in my hand, even though I hadn’t slid over to the hack yet.
“You’ve still got it,” he said again. “The Spirit of Curling.”
I didn’t think. I just slid. No rock, no stabilizer, no warm-up, no practice-practice slide, nothing. I got down in the hack and my broom barely touched the ice and I found myself in that familiar lunge again and there I was, sliding past the near hog line with my back toe straight and flat against the ice.
When I stood up and looked back, Mr. Winter had left the rink. I saw him on the other side of the observation window, checking in other players and making sure they’d signed their season waivers.
In retrospect, I wonder if I didn’t have the Spirit of Curling—if I’d lost it altogether in the long intervening months. I wonder if I just showed up that night at the curling club because I was asked to play, not because I necessarily wanted to. So much—about the world, about me—had changed; after the pandemic had taken and given so much. But perhaps that’s what a “Spirit” is: a something you don’t know, but somehow knows better than you. Or, perhaps, Spirit’s just belief—blind or otherwise—that you do know, even for a moment, all you need to know; or that all you know is enough.