Curling Is Not Just for Canadians

In the fall, the Bay Area Curling Club will open a new ice facility dedicate to the sport near the Coliseum.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Every winter Olympics, millions of people watch curling. And as they watch athletes move a 40-pound stone to one side of the ice to the other through a series of precise, controlled movements, many of those viewers think: Hey, I could do that.

Some of those people end up at the Bay Area Curling Club, which offers introductory lessons to interested newcomers and businesses looking for a creative bonding activity. This year, the club taught around 2,000 people how to curl after the winter Olympics. “Most people will say two things: One, it’s harder than it looks, and two, the target is a lot farther away than it looks,” said Sarah Walsh, the club’s president, who joined after watching curling in the 2006 Olympics and thinking it looked fun.

The club started in Silicon Valley in 1958, and bounced around various ice rinks before making its way to its current home at the Oakland Ice Center in 2009. The group of around 200 curlers is the country’s oldest arena curling club — meaning that its members practice on ice shared with skaters and hockey teams instead of at a dedicated curling facility. Despite that disadvantage, the club’s league teams do well. One of the teams has won the arena national championship twice, and other teams have competed at the national level against teams with their own dedicated facilities. Recently, the club started a junior league. “We had two teams, a boys team and a girl’s team, go up to a junior tournament in Seattle, and both teams finished second place in their division,” said Walsh. “The junior program in Seattle is very long established, so they were playing against some really competitive kids. That was really heartening to see.”

While the club has a handful of transplanted Canadians and Midwesterners who were familiar with curling, most of the club’s members were new to the sport when they joined. It’s an easy sport to learn but hard to get good at, requiring strong core strength, careful movements, and an understanding of the geometry that propels the stone down the ice. It’s more aerobic than it seems, said Walsh: “Sweeping is very challenging. You’re going back and forth up and down the ice up to two miles during the course of a game when you’re sweeping. It’s not as easy as they make it look on TV.”

The chess-like layers of strategy behind the game makes it addicting, said Sean Franey, the club’s vice president. “You have a very physical component, and at the same time, a very cerebral component,” he said. “You’re constantly thinking not just about the current shot, but the shot an end [a segment of a curling game, similar to an inning] from now, three ends from now.”

It’s also more accessible than many sports. The youngest club member is 11, the oldest a septuagenarian. Players of different skill levels can play on the same team, and if someone isn’t able to execute the sport’s signature lunge, they can use a stick to push the stone, which is what happens during the club’s wheelchair curling clinics.

This fall, the club will open a dedicated curling facility — California’s first — near the Coliseum. While the Oakland Ice Center’s rink might look smooth to untrained eyes, any tiny indentations from skates, or slightly uneven patches from the Zamboni can dramatically affect the trajectory of the stone. Curling ice needs to be completely flat, which is achieved through factors like the right water (deionized) and ice temperature (23 degrees.)

The club is excited to play on the improved ice, but members are also eager to have their own space to meet the growing demand for Bay Area curling. The club wanted to make sure that those 2,000 post-Olympic curlers would be able to try curling and hopefully join the club, so many of the club’s experienced curlers are taking the spring and summer off to accommodate the new players. 

Part of what keeps the new people coming back is the sport’s sense of camaraderie. The club’s website stresses the game’s politeness, noting that, “There’s usually a hockey game going on next door if you really need to work out frustration.” Opponents greet each other with a handshake and a sunny “Good curling.”

“You’re more likely to see somebody cheer a good shot made by their opponent than to be trash talking,” said Walsh. “I’ve played sports all my life, and I’ve always played sports for the game and the competitiveness. But the community of people involved in curling was really surprising. It is so welcoming.” After the game, the winning team buys the first round at a nearby bar, usually Make Westing or Diving Dog Brewhouse.

“There’s something like 80,000 registered curlers in the U.S. right now,” said Franey. “There’s not a ton of us, so you end up spending a lot of time with these people who have this kind of quirky interest that you have. It becomes a really strong community.”

 

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