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CLEAN Sweeping the house

The fine art of curling

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Gleefully exclaiming you threw a rock an extra eight feet straight into the center of the house with skillful sweeping could produce sudden expressions of panic on the unknowing face of your spouse, roommate or parental unit. That is, unless the receiver of your good news is well versed in the jargon of curling.

Past and present, the sport of curling seems mired in a cosmic blend of mystery and enthusiasm. Though curling connoisseurs concur that the game's creation dates back nearly 500 years, the nation whose citizens were responsible for the sport's existence is a much disputed fact, so much so that several authors have published arguments for both sides. Some purport that Flemish sportsmen introduced the game to Scotland where it was further developed. Ask the Scots and they'll reference two stones found at the bottom of an old pond in Scotland as evidence in their favor. One of those stones, the Stirling Stone dated 1511, is said to be archaeological evidence of curling in history. The stone's date of 1511 is well before any mention of curling in Flemish history.

Today, as is the case with hockey, Canada is such a dominant force in the world of curling that many people mistake the sport as a Canadian idea, eh. With 1.2 million of the world's total number of 1.5 million curlers, it's easy to understand the mistake. And that's not the only misconception about the stone cold sport. Randomly ask someone what they know about curling and usually they'll confess to catching a few minutes of it on television during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics as they were flipping through channels in search of slalom or downhill action. Some people know random curling trivia (like the loss of the World Championships by a North Dakota team in the '70s because a rejoicing teammate accidentally knocked the winning rock out of place while jumping for joy) but can't explain what a rock is or how it's knocked out the house.

"Curling is a combination of chess and shuffleboard," explained David Eaton, cofounder of the McCall Curling Club. "It's a great deal of strategy and a good curling team will anticipate the moves of their opposing team by two or three rocks."

Rick Patzke of the United States Curling Association (USCA) also emphasized the importance of strategy in curling.

"It's more like golf. You have to feel for the shots. You have to be able to determine how to shoot the distance you need to go and how to set up shots in relation to one another."

Regardless of which games curling can be compared to, the sport is undoubtedly unique. Two teams of four alternate turns pushing (known as throwing) giant stones with the goal of being the team to put a stone nearest to the 12-foot circle (known as the house) marked in the center of the 146-foot long sheet of ice. Each team member throws two stones per end. An end is similar to an inning; 16 stones are thrown per end (eight per team), and the team whose stone is closest to the center of the house after all 16 stones are thrown scores a point. A game of curling consists of 10 ends. After a rock is thrown, teammates use brooms to quickly melt a layer of water on the ice to control how far and in what direction a rock glides as it travels toward the house.

"Prior to the Salt Lake City Olympics you could pick anybody on the street and nobody knew what [curling] was," Patzke said explaining the current popularity of the sport. "Since the 2002 Olympics we've experienced a great amount of growth. There are 135 curling clubs nationwide with 13 of them new since 2002."

One of those new clubs is the McCall Curling Club (MCC) in McCall, just a stone's throw from Boise.

When cofounder Eaton climbed into the backseat of a friend's car at the post office one day declaring his intentions to start a curling club, he never anticipated just how successful the idea would be.

Last autumn MCC held its first open house in search of team members. After holding a second and third open house, MCC snagged enough interested people to form a league.

"Only two people had curled before when we started the league," laughed Eaton. "USCA and MOPAC (Mountain Pacific Curling Association) helped us get started--showed us how to paint ice and got our equipment."

And club equipment didn't come cheap. The club had to sink $10,000 into rocks, which weigh 46 pounds each and are made of granite that comes from Scotland where the only quarry in the world with granite of great enough density is located. Then there was another $800 for a hack (a block used to push of from when throwing rocks).

Nine months after its first open house, MCC is one of the most popular things happening in McCall. The club has completed its second session of league play with a trip to an Ogden bonspiel squeezed between sessions.

Though it sounds Germanic in origin, Eaton explains that a "bonspiel," or curling tournament, is Scottish for "good party." The upcoming USCA National Convention bonspiel in Bismarck, North Dakota, next week hosts 56 teams competing for a national title, but a bonspiel can be held with as few as four teams. Though the national title will be up for grabs in Bismarck, most bonspiels are opportunities to revel in camaraderie and to help perpetuate the sport.

At Bismarck's monster bonspiel, MCC will be one the featured clubs in marketing sessions and roundtable discussions as an example of a club whose size and popularity prove just how quickly the sport could potentially grow.

"We really think we were in the right place at the right time. This community has really embraced curling," brags Eaton, explaining that even East Coast teams that have been on the curling block much longer than MCC don't have the sponsorship and support that MCC has in McCall.

"We have teams sponsored by Tamarack and a beauty salon, and they knew nothing about the sport. They saw it as fun and wanted to participate."

And despite its disputed origins and its relatively obscure existence in the world of mainstream sports, the point of curling seems to lie somewhere between serious competition and serious fun.

"We just laugh for two hours," said Eaton about team practice. "It's something new and different and something that no one else is doing."

For more information on the McCall Curling Club, contact David Eaton at (208) 634-4777 or visit www.mccallcurling.com.