America's gold medal in curling can be traced back to Weber State

Tuesday , February 27, 2018 - 5:00 AM

DAVID FERRO, special to the Standard-Examiner

On the final Friday of the Olympics, the men’s American curling team defeated Sweden for the gold medal. Every four years curling takes hold of Americans’ imaginations for its finesse, strategy, the smile-inducing back-and-forth shouting as players vigorously scrub the ice, and its apparent ease of entry. In fact, while curling requires a great deal of practice to get to Olympic-level play, it is easy to pick up, can be enjoyed by people of all ages, and is easily done in Ogden which has a unique place in the history of the sport.

In an interview, U.S. Olympic team skip (leader) John Shuster indicated he was inspired to pursue curling after attending the 2002 Winter Olympics. I was in the audience as well. That year all the curling events took place on the Ice Sheet at Weber State. People throughout the United States were inspired. Curling clubs popped up in many locations – even places with warm weather such as California and Florida. The Salt Lake Olympic Committee sponsored the Ogden Curling Club, which has played under the Olympic rings for years since.

The game began prior to 1500 in Scotland on frozen ponds. The link to Scotland continues today. The traditional curling stones come from a granite quarry on an island off the coast of Scotland called Ailsa Craig. I’ve played with those stones.

If you understand shuffleboard, the play in curling should be somewhat familiar as you try to get (throw) as many of your stones closest to the center (button) of three surrounding concentric circles (house). Each stone closer than your opponent’s scores a point. You also can knock out and block your opponent’s stones. The strategy required has given it the moniker “chess on ice.”

The ice is prepared by sprinkling droplets on the ice that freeze. Riding on the bumpy surface, the stones make a distinctive roaring sound. The sweeping might seem absurd but actually changes the ice surface slightly to influence speed and direction of the stone subtly. The stone is spun and will curl (thus the name of the sport) in direction of spin. To make things even more interesting, the ice surface can change slightly over the course of a game. It’s interesting enough that WSU physicist Adam Johnston has brought his classes to the ice sheet to demonstrate the properties and forces involved.

While competition can be fierce, camaraderie and good sportsmanship are expected. You do not cheer your opponents (inevitable) mistakes. Games begin with handshakes and wishes for “good curling” and end with the same. Conceding a match in the face of inevitable defeat is honorable. Players call their own fouls.

In many venues, the winning team is expected to buy a round of drinks for the losing team. This is such an important part of the game that during the 2002 Olympics, the Alumni Center on Weber State’s alcohol-free campus became, essentially, Roosters Brewery East for the two weeks of the games. I visited it myself after the bronze medal game, and sure enough curling teams were there toasting each other with Roosters Root Beer and Two-Bit Amber.

No one should assume the game has no risk. Ice is slippery, and players slipped on occasion even during these Olympics. Players have a sheet of silicon under one shoe (or integrated into their shoe) as they throw their stone. Experienced players can glide up and down the ice on their slippery foot but less-experienced players probably should be more careful. I’ve seen a couple of people take hard falls.

Despite the slippery surface, some innovations have made curling accessible to disabled and older players. In league play, a “delivery stick” allows players to push the stone across the ice without bending down into what might look like an extreme yoga pose. Some folks in Ogden use the delivery stick. Others look like pros, gliding along the ice. How you look isn’t critical.

Curling is unlike other Olympic sports where the window for winning gold may be open for a few intense years, and athletes are finely honed physically. Shuster has played in four straight Olympics. His team are average Joes: an engineer, a liquor store manager, a salesman and a project manager. The folks curling locally also come from all walks of life: there’s a Hill Air Force Base ordinance lineman, a quality assurance inspector, an engineer, and a dean of a college at Weber State University. All share a love of curling.

Local curling clubs let us all dream of Olympic gold. Playing on former Olympic ice adds just a little extra excitement.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: @DavidFerro9.

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