Alli Harvey: Catching the curling bug

My boyfriend introduced me to the world of Monty Python when I was 15. The first episode we watched was pretty funny. During the second through 10th episodes I politely smiled, but I wasn't as enamored as my companion (who was laughing so hard he was crying). By the time we made it to the Holy Grail, I was pretty burnt out on Monty Python.

Unfortunately, when he took up learning everything about the sport of curling as his new Holy Grail in life, I was 16 and deep in the heart of teenagedom. This meant I didn't have time or care for anything resembling fun, because I was too busy scrawling profound 16-year-old thoughts about life in a spiral-bound notebook. I half-listened to everything he told me about curling with the detached aloofness of awful teenage girlfriends everywhere.

For a long time, I thought curling and Monty Python were the kinds of things your high school boyfriend finds really awesome that you can take or leave. It wasn't until recently that I realized there was, in fact, a lot happening with curling in the '90s and my boyfriend was hip to that scene, while I missed out.

In 1988, a grass-roots movement of Canadian curlers spoke: let curling be added as an Olympic event in Calgary. It started as a demonstration event and by '98 was added to the official Olympic program. Canadians have dominated.

Maybe it's due to our northern blood, but in Anchorage we have a strong cadre of curlers too. Most of us know exactly where the Anchorage Curling Club is located because we've passed it on our way to Government Hill and thought, "That is amazing! A curling club in Anchorage!" as we pull in to Tesoro.

It was inevitable that I was going to curl at some point, given that I live here and like to try new things, not to mention my teenage history with the sport. I just needed a small push. Sure enough, I was invited to go to the Curling Club by a friend last week, and I said yes.

While mentally readying myself to try the sport, I was pleasantly surprised by what I remembered of it, even through the haze of teenage glowering. I remembered my boyfriend enthusiastically telling me about the sweeping, the ice, the sportsmanship, the amazing Canadian facial hair. I'd watched some curling on TV, and I recalled players being down low and poised gracefully as they slid across ice. I recalled teams of two or three furiously scrubbing at the sheet (i.e., rink) with a muster I've never been able to achieve with a Swiffer.

To play the game is to send a heavy stone roaring toward a bull's-eye target -- the "house" -- on the other end of the sheet (in some parts of the world it's called the "roaring game" due to the sound the gleaming granite stone makes as it travels mightily across the ice). Once all of the stones, or "rocks" as they are called here in the States, have been sent to an end, the group of curlers inspects them, counting points. Then they take turns sending rocks back to the other end and repeat: launch, roar, sweep, inspect, count, repeat and so forth. The "curl" happens when you subtly turn the rock during its launch across the ice so you can have it come to rest exactly where you want it.

The thing is, I am not especially talented at standing up generally, never mind with any added variables like slick ice underfoot. I had some anxiety about trying curling. I thought of all of the gutter balls I've thrown while bowling (the closest thing to curling I have attempted). I looked down at the bruises that seem to live permanently on my legs from my bouts with daily life. I prepared myself for failure -- with an audience.

But when I stepped through a door at the north end of the long rectangular building, it felt like I was in a semi-public extension of someone's living room. In that first room there was a bar with stools, and then many low tables set up so you could look through a window at the curling hall itself. The first person I met -- a real, live curler! -- joked, "I have a hard enough time standing up generally, never mind on ice!" I was home.

There were several other new curlers among us, and we were given a brief overview of the game, strategy, and do's and don'ts. Curling is designed around basic tenets of good sportsmanship: the winning team traditionally buys the losing team beer, which is why curling clubs will have beer for sale for members (Anchorage Curling Club has the good stuff on tap, from several Denali Brewing offerings to one of my in-town favorites, Glacier Brewhouse's Oatmeal Stout). The game starts with participants on both teams shaking hands, saying "good curling."

We signed up for the night, paid our dues, grabbed some beers, and stepped from the "warm house" down a few stairs and onto the ice. It was cold and well lit, with the rocks arranged neatly at the base of the ice sheet and brooms lined up against a wall. Each of us had a Teflon sole to slip on one shoe so we could slide across the ice when it came time to launch a rock.

I heard someone announce that the ice had just been "pebbled," a technique that causes it to feel and look mottled. A lot of work goes into creating perfect ice so that more of the game can be focused on the strategy of actually curling the rock to land where you want it to, and less depends on luck and variability (as it did when the game was founded in Scotland, and still often does when you curl outside). Before I set foot on the ice I spent five minutes plucking debris out of the bottom of my hiking boots.

I went first on my team.

I braced my right leg back against the "hacks" (the starting block), poised like a sprinter. I affixed the slippery sole to my left shoe and felt my foot start gliding. I grabbed the handle on the top of the rock in my right hand and performed a sort of shy downward dog (someone corrected my form and told me that yes, my butt did need to be higher in the air -- hey, we're all friends here, I thought), crouched down again and then took off. I was leading with my left foot, the one with the slippery sole, dragging my right behind me in an exaggerated low lunge, sliding across the ice while guiding the heavy piece of granite.

I let go of the rock, like you're supposed to, amazed that I had not fallen over or knocked out any teeth. Unfortunately, my pattern for the evening was that I was so amazed I hadn't crashed that I didn't really launch anything. The rocks I sent across the sheet tended to pause midway to the house, despite furious scrubbing efforts on the part of my teammates to create a little more glide with their brooms.

Oh, well. Strategy can come later. I did not fall spectacularly. I was not called off the sheet. Most importantly, I finally came around, all these years later, to curling.

Alli Harvey lives and plays in Anchorage.