One Year of Curling

by wombatony

About six months ago, I wrote about my baby-step foray into the fascinating sport of curling. (No really, it’s a sport. We are athletes. It doesn’t matter that it ends with the winner buying beer for the loser.) I’ve continued with it and just passed the one-year anniversary of my Learn-to-Curl workshop. In fact, there was another Learn-to-Curl in February of this year, and at this one, I had fully graduated from student to teacher. I’ve continued to learn about the sport (okay, fine, “activity”) as I’ve grown from fresh-faced newbie to… um, not grizzled old vet… pock-marked adolescent? Sure, let’s go with that.

When I last checked in, I had just finished my first bonspiel, a weekend-long tournament, where I had curled next to Olympians. We had won our first match in the loser’s bracket before losing the last two game, missing out on the coveted “Travolta Cup” by one win. The Travolta Cup is a Red Solo Cup atop a pedestal of four VHS boxes of Travolta movies that gets passed around the four California bonspiels every summer. Much like the Stanley Cup, the winning team gets to write their names on the Cup. This year: that Cup will be ours!

Since then, I suffered through a horrible fall season, causing me to put together my own team of noobs for the winter/spring season. All of these things, both on and off the ice, has inspired a few more a-ha’s, which leads me to:

What I’ve learned about curling in my second six months.

  1. You can always watch curling.

Much like all the writing websites and resources I discovered when I went down that particular rabbit hole, joining the curling community in this day of internet streaming made me realize how much competitive curling is online. Gone are the days of being relegated to NBC’s seventh network once every four years. Much to the chagrin of my wife.

For instance, the World Women’s Championships have been held in Japan over the past week. They are being broadcast on World Curling’s YouTube channel, except for when NBC’s Universal Sports Network is streaming it on their own website. Or TSN, Canada’s equivalent of ESPN, broadcasts the Canadian team, and a recent deal allows espn3.com to mirror any TSN Canadian curling broadcast, so I can choose which country’s team to watch. Spoiler Alert: Canadians are better. To get to the World Championships, both the United States and Canada had their own tournaments a few weeks ago.  All broadcast on espn3.com or usacurl.org. Prior to that, each Canadian province held its own tournament to determine who went to Nationals. Not all of these were streamed, a surprising number of them could still be found.  I’m not ashamed to say I watched the Nova Scotian semi-final.

The men have been going through a similar journey, so I can only assume the World Championships will be coming to an internet site near you soon.  Add in the Juniors, the colleges, the Seniors, and I can pretty much find live curling any day I want. And if I can’t, there’s always old matches on YouTube. It’s not like I already know who won the Scotties matchup between Val Sweeting and Rachel Homan in 2012.

But even when the professionals aren’t engaging in some world  tourney, it’s still not hard to find something streaming live. The Coyotes Curling club in Arizona (yes, Arizona) holds a number of bonspiels every yer, and they stream all of them. TESN.com appears to stream league matches from many eastern and Midwestern states.  All it takes is some dedicated ice and a webcam on their part, and a little bit of research on mine.

  1. Watching the professionals isn’t always a good thing.

I start out watching with the best of intentions. I want to see what sorts of shots the skips call, and I want to see how the very best deliver the rock. Plus when they call the sweepers on and off. One of the nice things about curling broadcasts is that you can often hear the curlers discuss their strategy. You never hear a Tom Brady monologue about progressing through his wide receivers. No catcher is miked up to say he thinks the batter will swing at a low-and-away curveball. But in curling, especially in the last two shots per team, they talk about what they’re going to try to do.

Me and my team? We don’t hit our shots with the 85% accuracy the pros do. Usually our strategy is “throw it in this general area and hope that you don’t knock the other team’s rocks closer to the button.” Whenever I start watching the good curlers, I keep that in mind. “Yeah, There’s no way anyone I know could reliably thread that needle, so I would’ve gone for the outside shot.” But after binge watching on Saturday, I show up to the sheet on Sunday and call ridiculous shots.

It happens to us all. I got in the hack a few weeks ago and my skip called for me to knock the opponent’s stone out then have my stone roll in the opposite direction just enough to go behind a guard stone. The pros do that shit all the time, but at my level we’re concerned with hitting the target, not the precise force and trajectory to influence what happens after it hits. All I could do was look at my sweepers and say, “Does he know there’s no way in hell I’m hitting that?”

  1. Many people don’t know how good they are.

And it’s not always because we’ve just been watching Mike McEwen do shit like this.

No, some people just think they can thread the needle on a whim. And it’s easy to see why. The game isn’t difficult. There are only three things you have to do: throw the rock the correct distance, in the correct direction, and with the correct spin. Anbody who has been curling for more than a month has done that at least once.

But that “correct distance” thing is a matter of hitting a four foot window from 140 feet away. And the right direction might only be an inch or two wider than the stone, to say nothing of the amount of the curl. Imagine how many field goal kickers would get the three points if the uprights were only two feet wide.

The team I was on in the fall league had two players that felt they could not miss. The lesser experienced of the two demanded to be vice-skip, shooting third, and swore she was best at take-outs (knocking the other team’s rocks out of play). She hit less than half of them. Could I do better? Maybe or maybe not. But I wouldn’t be bragging about this alleged ability unless I could at least get a D-. She also would only sweep from one side and chastised me whenever I swept closer to the stone than she. However, when the skip said to start sweeping, I would always have my broom in position, while she would take two or three steps before her broom was on the ice. Hence I would end up closer to the stone than her.

The skip was even more sure of himself. I constantly wondered why he was calling certain shots. Later in the season, after the vice-skip stopped showing up to games, I viced once. The vice acts as the target for the final two shots when the skip is throwing, so I was finally able to see some of his thought process. Sure enough, he assumed he could throw that correct weight and correct distance every single time. So when he had been calling certain shots from me earlier, it was because he assumed he could knock out two opponent stones or raise two of ours.

“Are you sure you want me to put the broom here?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s the right shot because it’ll knock theirs back and we’ll score three points.”

“But if we came in on the open side, we’d at least score one instead of giving them two,” I offered.

“I’m pretty sure I can hit it if you put the broom here.”

“That’s what you said the last time.”

“I’ll hit it this time,” he promised.

He didn’t. Did I mention we only had one win?

  1. The better you get, the more frustrating it becomes.

I’m now fully capable of hitting most shots laid before me. The right distance, direction, and spin? I can nail all three of them about a quarter of the time. And well over half the time, I can at least get close enough to do some damage.

A few weeks ago, taking my penultimate shot as skip, I went around two guards and knocked the opponent’s stone off of the button to sit one point.  The opponent used his final shot to block up the hole I had just gone through, but there was still a little opening. My vice and I decided to try to throw the same shot I did the time before, just at a smaller gap this time. And you know what? I hit it. Precisely. Nothing feels as good as watching my stone hit that gap and curl out of view headed for an extra point.

Then the next end came and I couldn’t hit shit. The first shot doesn’t even make it across the hog line and the next one hits one of our own stones out.  It was like following up a bowling turkey with a couple of gutter balls.

It’s not just me. I was vicing and our skip was hitting every obscure shot I was calling. Then we’re faced with one opponent rock inside a ring of four of ours. All we have to do is knock theirs out and we’ll score four or five. His first shot was too far to the left, so I adjusted the broom and wouldn’t you know, the next shot he’s too far to the right.

I’ve heard golf is similar to this. Although in theory you’re competing against the other people or teams, you’re really competing against yourself. Against the shot you know you can make. Sometimes I know as soon as I leave the hack that it’ll be a bad shot. Sometimes it leaves my hand and I think, “oh yeah, I nailed it.” Most of the time I sit there and watch it slide down the ice, wondering what in the hell it’s going to do.

  1. Chemistry matters as much as talent.

I started this journey at the same time as a friend of mine, and we have played on each other’s team ever since. Both of us loved the first team we were on (shocking, since we went undefeated) and were not fans of our second team. But it wasn’t just the losses. We never really felt on the same wavelength as the other two member of our team. In fact, when the two of them stopped showing up for the last three or four games, we weren’t all that upset. Except for the fact that we had to forfeit. In a forfeit, we still play the game, because there are always people willing to substitute. The first time it was just the two of us, we were playing against a team that also only had two players show up, so we thought the game would count. In that game, I decided to skip, my friend viced, and we had two subs. All of a sudden, it was like we were back in the undefeated season. I was calling a strategy that he understood. We were  paying attention to how both teams played and pulling points whenever we could. It went unspoken until the three-quarter mark, when we were up by one with a few ends left to play, just how much this game meant to the two of us.

“This feels good,” I said, as we watched the other team deliver its stone.

“Yeah,” he responded. “It’s nice not having the two know-it-alls calling stupid shots.”

“I really want to fucking win.”

“Let’s do it. To prove it wasn’t us sucking this whole season.”

We won, even if it didn’t count in the standings.  The beer we paid for tasted sweet.

That conversation cemented what we already knew. Playing with people we liked, and people that communicated throughout the game, was as important as winning. We formed a team with two others in a similar boat. We’re not supposed to form our own teams in the “B league,” but they allowed it since we’ve all been playing less than a year, so it’s not like we were creating an uber-team to screw the level of competition.

We even tried a crazy idea of switching what position we played every week. Eventually we’ll pick what we prefer or are best at. But in the meantime, we’ll learn each other’s tendencies and what the general team strategies. So if I’m lead, I’ll know what the skip is trying to accomplish with his call, and vice versa. Since we’re all still learning the game, we want to learn it all.

And the result? Three wins and three losses, in a tie for third place. Not bad. Are we going to Pyongyang? No. But there are a few 5-and-under tourneys that we might have a shot at in the next three years.

Even better, after every game, we split a pitcher of beer (half of them bought by us, half by our opponents), talk about how the game went and what strategies we’ll use next week when we have a different order. Something that never happened with my last team.

  1. Curlers are as friendly as they are competitive.

The post-match beer is only part of it. In a year of curling, I’ve only run into a handful of people that weren’t overly friendly. If you make a good shot, it’s likely to be the person on the other team who congratulates you first.  If I’m skipping against an experienced skip, I can ask advice, both before and after a shot. I’ve even had one or two say, “They need to sweep that,” then apologize afterward for “interrupting” me, even though their advice put their own team in a worse position. In a pick-up game, we didn’t have enough sweepers, so we swept for our opponents.

Little things make it feel like a family. When someone shows up with shoes for the first time, everybody stops to watch the first delivery with the new shoes. It is often hilarious because those shoes do NOT work the same way as the sliders. It’s like back to square one. Recently I was looking to buy my own broom, and everyone was perfectly willing to let me use theirs for an end, trading with me for the crappy broom-equivalent of bowling alley rental shoes.

None of this is to say we don’t want to win.  We do, but we want the overall level of competition to improve. We don’t want to beat a subpar team, we want that team to get better, then still beat them.

What we want is what we say at the beginning and end of every match: Good Curling.

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