Taking it to the house

March 13, 2010, 5:46 p.m. (ET)

"This here is curling," said Marlon Shepard. "It's pretty exciting stuff."

Marlon Shepard is part of a group of young athletes from the United States who have been invited to come to the Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games as part of a program called Paralympic Experience.  For five days these aspiring Paralympians will get to see some of the best athletes in the world compete in each of the five winter Paralympic disciplines.

On Friday, they learned how to curl on a public ice rink in downtown Vancouver.  By the looks on the group's faces they were definitely excited to be here and trying a sport that none of them had tried before.

Marlon, an aspiring Paralympic Nordic sit-skier from New Hampshire, continued narrating the action, as the Paralympic Experience group was taking turns shoving stones across the ice. "This guy is good," he said, motioning to Eric Phillips, a wheelchair basketball player from Chicago.  "That guy over there is good," he said motioning across the ice. "Me, not so much."

I asked him what the problem was. 

"I just can't get that umph," he replied, making the arm motion like he was curling. "But I'm going to get that umph.  I'm going to get that umph right now."

This was followed by a valiant effort that left the stone sitting just over half-way down the sheet of ice.  "I still got to work on my umph, but it's ok. It's ok."

I knew exactly what Marlon was talking about, having just had my first curling experience the day before the Paralympic Experience group.

I had become enraptured with the game of curling during the Torino Olympics when I wasted away my free time between classes at the University of Illinois on my couch watching heavy stones slide across the ice.  I had been itching to try the sport for myself ever since, and when first-time Paralympian Jacqui Kapinowski invited me to join the USA curling team at practice I jumped at the opportunity.

In 2008, I spent two months in Australia training and preparing for the Beijing Paralympic Games and fell into the habit of going lawn bowling on the weekends.  I wasn't half bad by the time I left. 

Lawn bowling, I figured, is a lot like curling.  You use turf instead of ice, and balls instead of stones, but both games are scored the same way and involve the same strategies.  The balls in lawn bowling are also weighted, allowing them to curl just like the stones on ice.

Combine my lawn bowling experience with my senior year spent playing petanque (the French version of boccia), instead of studying, and I figured I had a head start on the game of curling.

It was a lot harder than I imagined, and much more complicated.

During the first part of practice, while the team was practicing shooting different shots, laying center guards, corner guards, take-outs, draws, tap backs, and hit and rolls, I was  busy deciphering the language of the game.

While listening to Marc Deperno, USA curling team leader, I quickly learned that there was more to curling than trying to get as many stones as you can as close to the button as possible (the button is the very center of the house.  The house is the target drawn on either end of the sheet.  The sheet is what the playing surface is called.  Try to keep up).

It is a game of strategy and set up.  You start by throwing a stone or two that fall 6-10 feet shy of the house, then you follow those by curling stones around your blockers to settle behind them and as close to the button as possible.  The blockers make it harder for your opponent to knock your stones out of the house.

"You always have to think two shots ahead, like chess," Augusto "Goose" Perez, the US skip, told me.

As if this isn't complicated enough, you have to get your stones to stop in the right positions after throwing them from over 72 feet away.  Strategy means nothing if you can't control your stones.

Curling is indeed all about the "umph," as Marlon says. 

After watching the pros throw and observing the different techniques involved (James Joseph, aka Jimmy Jam, mutters strange gutteral sounds and barely audible obscenities at his stones, while Goose hums his stones down the sheet) I decided to give it a try.  I had just seen Patrick McDonald throw six straight beautiful stones, hitting his mark every time, and I had convinced myself it was just as easy as he made it look.

The joke was on me.  My first three stones did not even make it to the hog line, a blue line painted on the ice 25 feet from the end of the sheet that a thrown stone must pass to be legal.  My fourth stone barely made it across the hog line, and my last few stones, determined not to come up short each time, went straight through the house and out the back door.  I had completely forgotten to try controlling my stone with humming, and my obscenities were mumbled a little too audibly.

I was amazed at how little difference in "umph" was involved between throwing a stone shy of the hog line and sending a stone through the house.  In the able bodied game sweepers play a huge role in changing the speed of the stone and controlling where it comes to rest.  Wheelchair curlers don't have that advantage.

"It's amazing how much more accurate we have to be," Jimmy Jam told me.

Watching my Paralympic Experience friends attempt to curl I could see that they were having the same issues as I was.

My friend Andrew, an aspiring Paralympic monoskier, said it best, "I might be interested in it once I figure out how to move 42lbs. (the weight of a curling stone) across the ice."

After my first attempt at the sport, and witnessing first hand the skills of the American squad, I am determined to figure it out.