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What the heck is curling?

As the Sochi Winter Olympics approach, the U.S. national team curling coach offers up the lowdown on the misunderstood sport

Jessica Schultz curling; all photos courtesy of USA Curling

Jessica Schultz curling; all photos courtesy of USA Curling

Like golf, you just don’t get curling until you’re deep in the game. There’s strategy, finesse, and physical and mental proficiencies that aren’t obvious to a spectator. “Mental skills are huge in curling,” says 2010 Olympian and USA Curling national coach John Benton. “Being able to stay composed in high-pressure situations and focus on the ‘game within the game’ is very important.”

But first, the rules. “Curling” is the term for pushing a 42-pound stone down a 150-foot long sheet of ice to win a point by placing the round, flat-bottomed rock as close as possible to the tee—the center point of a 12-foot scoring circle, or “house.” Teams of four alternate curling shots with opponents while teammates use synthetic brooms to “sweep” or melt ice and reduce friction between the stone and frozen playing surface. Sweeping can help a stone slide up to 15 feet farther. Like innings in baseball, scoring is tallied at the completion of each of 10 “ends.”

Both males and females can excel at the sport. “Athletes who are flexible, have a lean build, and great balance typically excel at curling, but the athletes who seem to rise to the top are the ones who are very well-rounded, good communicators, confident, and great thinkers—almost regardless of their athletic build,” Benton says.

Team sweeping in curling; all photos courtesy; photo courtesy of USA Curling

Team sweeping in curling; photo courtesy of USA Curling

Olympic curler Jessica Schultz explains the sport’s most interesting aspects: “Aside that a centimeter can determine an outcome of a shot or a game, the most challenging part is finding your performance ‘zone’ and the team’s zone—processing missed shots and trying to put a positive spin on it so the next person can execute their shot.”

Like any sport, curling requires serious training to get good at it. Schultz says curling calls for a combination of balance/stability, overall body strength, and quick arm speed, as well as strategy, determination, focus, and the ability to be a team player. “Athletes in curling work hard on lower-extremity and core strength for balance and control,” Benton says. He also explains that the order teammates curl in affects how they train. “Cardio and upper-body strength are more important for the lead and second [positions] than for the third and skip [fourth and final shooter] because they do the majority of the sweeping.”

Jessica Schultz curling; all photos courtesy of USA Curling

Jessica Schultz curling; all photos courtesy of USA Curling

The modern game is more precise, however, than traditional curling. The quirky sport started in Scotland in the 16th century, when the climate was colder and especially conducive to a friendly pastime played on frozen marshes with water-smoothed channel stones. The sport gradually migrated to America by about 1832 and is now played by 16,000 members in approximately 165 clubs in 40 states.

“Our sport has grown through the Olympics, obviously, but many clubs have created special programs to target corporate outings, community education, and youth groups,” Benton says. “Most clubs also offer extremely affordable learn-to-curl programs. However, you can’t beat word of mouth—members bringing friends and acquaintances to try the sport.”

Jessica Schultz curling; all photos courtesy of USA Curling

Jessica Schultz and teammate curling; all photos courtesy of USA Curling

The community aspect of the game—stones among friends—seems to drive its appeal as a lifetime sport, as the “Spirit of Curling” illuminates: “Curlers play to win but never to humble their opponents … while the main object of the game is to determine the relative skill of the players, the spirit of the game demands good sportsmanship, kindly feeling, and honorable conduct.”

Its rewards are also great, says Schultz. “Curling has taught me all of life’s lessons—how to work with people and be a team player; organization and time management; how to set and attain goals; and to value and build relationships,” she says.

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