NEW YORK – Mark and Sabrina Chuhran couldn’t stop smiling. But they also couldn’t come to a consensus.
“It was me,” he said.
“Oh,” she replied. “He always likes to brag!”
It’s Wednesday in Times Square and Team USA is counting down 100 days to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 with the first of a 13-stop Team USA WinterFest presented by HERSHEY’s tour.
The Chuhrans, visiting New York from Detroit, had just stepped off what seemed like a sheet of ice but is actually plexiglass. They had been trying their hand at curling alongside some world-class U.S. athletes and Olympic hopefuls. I had posed the question to them: So, who turned out to be better?
“Being down like that, bending on your knee” to push the stone, “that was really hard,” Mark elaborates when I ask what the hardest aspect of their short stint as curlers was. “I’d like to actually try this sometime.”
“This is fun,” Sabrina adds. “Really, really fun.”
Curling, it turns out, is hard. Really, really hard. The sport of stones and brooms and sweeping and a bulls-eye on ice (it’s actually called a house, the center known as the button) is one of the few that Olympic fans get to try first-hand at WinterFest, thanks to the Team USA Curling Challenge presented by OREO, all in hope to grow the niche sport.
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After Mark and Sabrina were brave enough to try, I took to the plexiglass (ice!) myself, with a little bit of help from 2006 Olympic bronze medalist John Shuster and Jamie Sinclair, the reigning U.S. women’s national champion and a PyeongChang hopeful.
My three takeaways:
1) The stone is heavier than you expect (even after you’re told it’s “really heavy”).
2) The nuanced mechanics of all the moving pieces on the ice is enough to make your head spin.
3) I’m really bad at curling. Well, I should actually just take to practicing more…
“The main thing is you want the curling rock to come off of your nose almost, so that you can throw it straight forward,” Shuster tells me. “If you try to start with off to the side like in bowling, it’s hard to be precise because it’s not in front of you.”
Curling stones (called “rocks” by the competitors as slang) weigh 42 pounds, and the ones used in Times Square on Wednesday were 25-30 pounds and moved over the plexiglass on wheels, simulating the travel on a slick sheet of curling ice.
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“We’re being very precise with these giant, heavy stones,” says Shuster, a three-time Olympian. “A curling sheet is 150 feet long. That’s very difficult. We’re showing that it’s hard on the small scale, but hopefully once people give it a shot they’ll want to enjoy it more.”
Step one of throwing a great stone is to get low and bend down on one knee, pushing your weight forward and allowing your stronger hand to direct the stone forward. Step two is to pray you’re doing it right. (Or… at least that’s my step two.)
“You want to get the rock as close to that bulls-eye-looking thing as possible, which we call a house,” Sinclair explains to me, then smirks. “Yes, we throw rocks at houses.”
That’s the simplified version, but in elite curling, the throwing of the stone is just the beginning. There is also the skip (think: captain or quarterback), who directs the team’s strategy and execution (and is also the last to send stones down the sheet of ice) as well as sweepers, who help create a path for the stones depending on how much guidance it needs or not.
But how do the sweepers know if a stone needs their help?
“You just know,” Shuster offers in true veteran form. “If you’re not trying to hit another rock with your shot, (the sweepers) judge it off of feel, but we also have stopwatches to help us, or if the skip on the other end sees that it’s going to curl too much – curve to one side – he’ll tell the sweepers to try to direct it back straight down the ice.”
Later in the afternoon at WinterFest, snowboarders Alex Deibold and Chase Josey went head-to-head in the Curling Challenge for a Team USA Facebook Live. They both threw with surprising precision, though the difficulty of it all wasn’t lost on the two world-class athletes in their own right.
“It’s so much harder than you can imagine,” Deibold said. “I’ve tried (sweeping) before… First of all, you have to not fall over, then you have to sweep like your life depends on it.”
Among myself, Deibold, Josey and the Chuhrans, we were just a handful of first-time curlers in Time Square on Wednesday. And that’s the idea: Get people out on the (faux) ice to try something new and learn a bit more about the Olympics. But those cool curling pants you see at the Games? You’ll have to find them yourself.
“A lot of people haven’t seen curling before, so this is a great way for us to help grow the sport,” said Sinclair. “It’s different and you don’t get to see it that often, so this is a great way for us to get out there and in front of people. It’s exciting.”
Shuster added: “We just want people to get out and curl. There are local curling clubs in a lot of states now. You can find dedicated curling ice in Atlanta, Charlotte, San Francisco, LA, Minnesota, Wisconsin... They all have learn-to-curl programs where you can go onto an actual curling sheet and try to learn how to curl. Generally each state has an arena club, too. A lot of passionate people love the sport of curling around the world.”
Including another new convert in Sabrina Chuhran.
“This was so cool because I really love the Winter Olympics,” she said. “Getting the chance to do this… that was really awesome.”