Friday, February 12, 2010

I Enjoy Watching Curling

I’ve heard a lot of people ripping on curling as these Winter Olympics approach, and I don’t think that’s fair. I tried curling for the first time last year, and I’ve always enjoyed watching it. It actually reminds me of baseball.

I think some people see it as a form of bowling, and while I don’t want to denigrate bowling, curling is far more difficult, requires more athletic ability, and most importantly, requires a ton of strategy.

(Quick disclaimer in case any actual curling experts read this. I’ll probably misstate something. I’m working mostly off of my one time curling in person, and watching curling in bars with the sound off. But I’ve at least got the gist of it.)

You can read about the rules online in many different places, and I won’t go over them in detail here. What I do want to do is point out a few things that you may not learn from simply watching the broadcast.

1. Curling is hard.

The first thing you learn upon trying curling is not to step on the ice with your slider foot first. When you curl, you wear a special frictionless shoe called a slider. You spend a lot of time moving on the ice by pushing yourself along with your normal shoe while sliding on the slider. If you step on the ice with your slider shoe before your regular shoe, you will fall. The second thing you learn is that sliding down the ice while sweeping as fast as you can is an intense aerobic workout. You don’t have as much leverage as you normally would because of the ice, and you sweep for a long distance. The playing surface is 50 yards long, and over the course of a match, all of that sweeping really adds up.

You also have to be pretty flexible. The throwing motion is awkward. It’s easy to lose your balance, and if you happen to wear jeans while curling, people will probably see more of you than you intended.

Oh, and that stone weighs 40 pounds.

2. You have to yell really loud to communicate.

Some time when you’re on a football field, have one person stand on the goal line and another person stand at the 50, and have a conversation. The curling match requires you to communicate constantly at that distance. When I played, my position (skip) required the most yelling, and frankly, I don’t really have the pipes for it. Even at my very loudest people had a hard time hearing me.

3. The ice isn’t smooth.

The reason the sport is called curling is that when you throw a stone, you can get a certain amount of lateral movement by turning (basically, gently spinning) the rock as you release it. If memory serves (which is probably doesn’t), every rotation of the stone will create about 2 feet of lateral movement over the course of the pitch. You can really get a ton of movement on the thing. The reason it curls is because the surface is prepared by spraying it with water droplets, which causes “pebbling” on the surface. The friction between the pebbled surface and the stone allows for the curl. The sweeping eats away at the pebbling, and causes the stone to flatten out.

Because of this, curling is one of the only sports where you have some power to alter your throw in mid-throw (like pitching in a baseball video game).

4. Curling has ten “innings” which are called “ends.”

I mentioned that I think curling is like baseball, and the untimed, “inning style” is one of the reasons.

5. Throwing the last rock in an end is advantageous.

For obvious reasons, throwing the last rock (or the “hammer”) gives you a better chance to score. Determining who shoots last in the first end is usually decided by coin flip, or alternatively, the captains of each team will each throw a rock, with closest to the bulls eye (the middle of the “house”) gaining the honors. In each subsequent end the hammer will be reserved for the team that did not score in the previous end. In the event of a tie (or a “blank end”) the hammer stays with the last team to have it.

The team that is not throwing last will generally play a more defensive oriented end, setting up more blockers in anticipation of the last throws. The order plays a huge role in strategy.

There is a lot going on in a curling match. I really think it appeals to my baseball sensibilities. It fits into the “pastime” category nicely. You can watch in a low-intensity way, yet just like baseball, every throw is important, and there is potential for big moments and spectacular plays. (Really! An example would be a final shot that results in a huge, perfectly calibrated chain reaction.)

If you love baseball, try watching a match. And if you ever want to try it, I'd recommend the Chicago Curling Club. We had a great time there at a "learn to curl" event.


Eric said...

Curlilng in the Olympics is a timed event. You have x amount of minutes to complete your ten ends. Not sure on the consequences for failure.

Curling is quite hypnotic. Even without knowing all the athleticism there's a lot to see. I'd call it a cross between pocket billiards, bowling, and baseball.

Do you like alliteration? You're welcome.

Eric said...

And that shot was outstanding