Curling is a sport of strategy, skill and execution. For that, it is beloved by millions around the world, but it isn’t anyone’s idea of a high-octane thrill sport.
It certainly wasn’t for Kirk Black, who in his life had raced motocross for 20 years in addition to serving in the U.S. Army. He was also a native Texan and didn’t really even know what curling was until seeing it on display while competing at the National Veteran Wheelchair Games in 2007.
“I competed in track and field; I did shot put, discus and javelin that year,” Black recalled in September at the Team USA Media Summit in Park City, Utah. “I placed third in all three events, only because there were three individuals in my classification, and figured out real quick that this was not my sport.”
During their off time, participants could try different sports.
“Curling was one of those,” Black said. “And so I thought, ‘I’ll go try it.’”
Black enjoyed the sport and was excited to continue with it, only to learn the harsh reality for a curler in Texas. There were no local clubs. But he still wanted to compete in a sport at a high level, so he took up archery in hopes of making the national team. Then in 2014, he had a chance meeting at the Veterans Winter Sports Clinic with a national curling coach, who invited Black to a training camp in Lake Placid, New York.
“I went out to Lake Placid and did the camp, and that was literally where the fire just took off and it was something that I knew I had to do,” Black said. “It’s a sport that even though it’s not downhill skiing, or motocross, or it’s something like sled hockey that’s fast with a lot of adrenaline, I get just as much of a high off this sport as I did when I raced motocross, when I did archery, when I did all these other sports.”
Texas now has three curling clubs, in Austin, Dallas and Houston. But as arena clubs that share ice with skaters and hockey players, they lacked the dedicated ice that high-level curlers need to train. So Black moved his family from San Antonio to Madison, Wisconsin, for six months out of the year to get the training he needs.
“I always get asked, ‘Why? Why the winters in Wisconsin and the summers in Texas?’” Black said. “Little backwards, but to play the sport that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to go where there’s dedicated ice.”
Curling often takes decades to master, but Black has gone from novice to the Paralympic Winter Games in just about three years. Black was officially announced as the vice skip for the U.S. team headed to PyeongChang, along with teammates Steve Emt, Justin Marshall, Meghan Lino and Penny Greely. This week they’re taking part in the Paralympic High Performance Camp and U.S. Open Bonspiel.
At 48, Black is the elder statesman of the Paralympic team, especially to the 31-year-old Marshall who affectionately calls him “Grandpa.” But that breadth of ages competing together is one of the things Black loves most about the sport.
“Curling is one of the best sports in the world,” Black said. “I’m gonna tell you, it’s a sport that at any local club that you can go out there and compete next to a 6-, 7-, 8-year-old kid, all the way up to his great grandpa that’s out on the ice that’s in his late 80s, maybe 90s, you can have three or four generations out on the same sheet of ice and playing.”
It’s also a sport that accommodates almost anyone of any ability. At the Madison Curling Club, Black regularly curls against Nina Roth and Matt Hamilton, who recently qualified for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, and rarely against other wheelchair curlers. The differences are minimal.
“We use carbon fiber sticks, they’re about 6-feet long; we use a head that attaches to the actual handle of the stone,” Black said. “The stones and handles and everything are all the same as the Olympic stones, we just use a stick that pushes the stone.”
If anything, wheelchair curling is even harder because athletes have less time and space to dial in a stone’s speed and line. Black joked that able-bodied curlers get to “cheat” by having this extra distance.
“Literally we have about three feet to get our weight perfect, compared to able-bodied curlers that get to slide out of the hack and cheat and get their weight down perfectly,” Black said. “So wheelchair curling is not as precise as able-bodied curling, but in my opinion it’s a heck of a lot harder, because we have to get it to that final destination without the sweepers.”
Even the wheelchairs are not specially modified. They just need a few minutes on the ice for the tires to cool down and get sticky.
While Black enjoys the strategy and competition of curling, it’s also another chance to represent his country after serving in the Army from 1988 to 1993.
“When I was in the military, to have the U.S. Army on your chest was a huge honor,” Black said. “I’m an older guy, and I’m a softie. I remember getting my USA uniforms sent to me in the mail before worlds this last year, and opening up that box and seeing your name on the back of a jersey that says USA, oh, I cried like a baby.
“Just to get that opportunity to compete at that level is something that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
In that sense, curling provides all the thrills one could ever need.Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.