Sweeping the competition

From coast-to-coast, curling draws avid followers of all ages. Journal Editor in Chief Michael Woods went out to discover what the hype’s all about

The men’s curling team ended fourth in the province last year.
The men’s curling team ended fourth in the province last year.
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The women’s curling team donned tams for their first practise.
The women’s curling team donned tams for their first practise.
Photo: 

As I put on men’s curling captain Chadd Vandermade’s shoes Tuesday night, he explains to me why most of the team has curled for more than 10 years.

“It’s not really something you can pick up right away,” he said. “There are a lot of skills you don’t use in other sports.”

After removing the rubber sole from one of my shoes—my sliding foot—I learned first-hand just how right he was.

With members of the men’s team shouting encouraging instructions, I tried my best to squat, shift my weight back, push off the blocks with my right foot and drag my right leg straight behind me for balance. It wasn’t long before I slid sideways and barely avoided falling over.

Now charged with the task of throwing a 44-pound granite rock, I tried again. My push was better, but the rock would have sooner sailed onto the next sheet of ice than made it to the house—the curlers’ target.

Vandermade, Comm ’10, said a good curler would have pushed much harder than I did.

“We could slide down to the other end if we wanted to, except you have to let go [of the rock] before that line,” he said, pointing to the hog line about seven metres away.

A curling team—formally called a ‘rink’—consists of four players; a lead, second, vice and a skip. The skip manages the game, instructing the rest of the players how and where to throw their rocks before throwing the last two rocks themselves. When they aren’t throwing, players other than the skip are sweeping—hence the loud yelling of “Hurry hard!” and “Sweep!” curling’s probably best known for.

Vandermade said sweeping reduces friction in the ice and can help a rock slide about six feet further than it normally would. It also stops the rock curling too much.

Curling’s tough mechanics are only the beginning, Vandermade said.

“There’s a basic strategy, and you pick up the little things as you play.”

A curling match consists of 10 rounds, known as ends, with each team throwing eight rocks per end. The team that throws last has the hammer—considered a strategic advantage.

Tuesday was the first practice for both teams because they’ve been conducting tryouts since the ice at the Cataraqui Golf and Country Club opened two weeks ago.

The men’s team consists of seven players, and the women have six. Although the teams only practice once per week, most players are involved in other club teams. They end up practicing or playing four times a week, plus bonspiels—curling-speak for tournaments—on the weekend.

Curling’s interuniversity competition schedule is sparse. The sectionals in January pit the Queen’s teams against the University of Toronto, Trent University and Laurentian University. The sectionals are in Sudbury this year.

In early February, they play Ontario’s remaining teams. The OUA final four is held around Valentine’s Day weekend every year.

The men’s team last won the OUAs in 2004. Last year, they qualified for the OUAs but finished fourth. The province’s top three teams qualify for the CIS championships, which are in Edmonton this year.

In a sign of the times, teams normally shake hands in curling as a sign of sportsmanship, but signage around the ice citing the H1N1 flu outbreak forbade the players from doing so on Tuesday. The women’s team elbow-bumped instead.

Women’s coach Kendra Barrick, a masters student, has been curling for 13 years. She said the sport is a de-stresser for her.

“When I think of playing sports, it’s to relieve me from school stress and work stress,” she said, adding that curling is also an age-friendly sport. “You always meet really interesting people, and the people you meet are anywhere from 12 to 85.”

Barrick, who played on the team until assuming coaching duties this year, said curling’s social aspect is another huge draw.

“In curling, it’s almost rude not to have a beverage after,” she said.

John Beuk coaches and skips for the men’s team. He’s a PhD student in neuroscience and was the lead on the provincial-champion 2005 team. This is his seventh year with the team.

He said although curling’s a social sport, it can be frustrating, too.

“It’s like golf. Usually it’s terrible, but every so often you make a good shot and it keeps you coming back,” he said, adding that most professional curlers are pretty good golfers.

The curling team is a competitive club, meaning they get funding for competitions but pay for their own practice times and uniforms.

Beuk said he’s been told the team won’t get funding to go to nationals unless they finish first in Ontario.

The men’s team is last on the ice at the Cataraqui Golf and Country Club. After we leave the surface, I ask Beuk how he handles people who make fun of him when they learn he’s a serious curler.

“I don’t mind it, because anybody who jokes about it generally loves it when they try it and wants to do it again.”

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