On the rocks: Local curling club sweeps up Giorgetti.

Recently, I’ve been looking at ways to beat the winter blues. A couple weeks ago, I turned you on to open mic nights in downtown Rutland. And before that, in a moment of extreme cabin fever, I suggested that the best cure might be to pack your car and drive to California (this one left my employers a bit concerned).

Well, I’m still here, and this week I decided to brave the cold to see what sorts of recreational activities people are doing in Rutland this time of year. Obviously, there are quite a few – skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, hockey, skating. But we know about all these. I was looking for something less mainstream. I found curling.

Of course, I’d heard of curling before, but I knew very little about it. To the uninformed observer the game looks like this: you slide a big rock with a handle on it across some ice while, at the same time, sweeping said ice with a broom.

“This is a sport?” you might ask.

Indeed, it is. In fact, it’s an Olympic sport. (Now, don’t you feel silly?) In 1924, curling was an event at the Winter Olympics. Subsequently, it was played as a demonstration sport at several Olympics until 1998, when it was retroactively made official. Fans of the “Colbert Report” may have seen Stephen Colbert’s profile last month of the U.S. curling team. I highly recommend seeking it out for an entertaining introduction to the sport.

Knowing that Rutland has an active curling population, I decided to see just what they were all about. But first I needed to better understand the sport so I sought out someone who I knew would be an authority on curling: a Canadian.

While invented in Scotland, curling was perfected in Canada where it is a prized national pastime and a hugely popular spectator sport. According to my Canadian friend, you’re just as likely to find curling on TV in a bar in Canada as hockey.

I asked him for a brief primer on the game – rules, scoring, strategy, culture. I stepped in it early on when I foolishly compared it to shuffleboard or bocce (both unwelcome comparisons, I learned – especially the latter).

In a nutshell, curling works likes this: It’s played by two teams of four on a sheet of prepared ice. Each team takes turns sliding a granite “stone” (weighing around 40 pounds) down the ice toward the target, called the “house.” Two “sweepers” (the guys with the brooms) accompany the stone down the ice, using the brushes to direct the stone to the house.

A game consists of eight or 10 “ends,” kind of like innings. Ends consist of each member of each team throwing two stones. After both teams have thrown, the team with the stone closest to the “button” (the center of the house) is awarded one point for each of its own stones that is closer than those of their opponent. The team with the highest score at the end of the game wins.

But what about all the sweeping? That has to do with the ice. Curling ice is not like normal, or multi-sport (arena) ice. Before play, the teams will prepare the ice by dripping water over the surface. As the water freezes, it creates a pebbled surface, which will slow the speed of the stone.

Sweeping in front of the path of a stone will make it travel farther, straighter and curl less by using friction to melt the pebbles (didn’t you learn anything in physics class?) Deciding when and how long to sweep is a big part of the game’s strategy, and is the job of the “skip” (the team’s captain) to yell these instructions down the ice to the sweepers.

That’s about it. There’s a lot more to it, but you should get the idea by now. Bocce this is not. Feeling properly informed, I headed down to Giorgetti Arena last Wednesday night to witness the curling phenomenon firsthand. (Speaking of Giorgetti, I want to give a nod to the Rec. Department and the city for the great job they have done with this space in the last few years.)

The Rutland Rocks Curling Club was started in late 2007 by Bill Anderson and Nancy Murphy. A collaborative effort between the club and the city, which Anderson gratefully acknowledges as a “terrific partner” – Rutland Rocks meets up twice a week at Giorgetti, on Sunday and Wednesday evenings.

Prior to starting the club, Anderson and Murphy had never curled.

“We learned to play and teach at the same time,” said Anderson, who first encountered curling while visiting Scotland. Murphy became interested in the sport while living in Burlington, where she frequently watched matches on Canadian television.

Despite their lack of experience, Anderson and Murphy were eager to dive right in.

“We’re virtually all new curlers here,” Murphy says of the club’s 23 current members. All players must participate in an afternoon of training before they can join. This training registers members with the Grand National Curling Club, of which the club itself is also a member.

Consisting of more experienced and novice curlers, the club has a sense of discovery and newness to it. Players are friendly, patient and helpful. It helps that curling is such social game. Indeed, drinking is a common part of the game, both during and after (the winners traditionally buy the first round), which for obvious reasons, Rutland Rocks abstains from.

While they currently have an enthusiastic and active core of players, Anderson and Murphy are always looking for new members. “We’d really like to reach that critical mass where we could become an actual league,” says Murphy, who is hopeful that the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver will draw more attention to the sport.

Anderson is quick to add that there is a Learn to Curl Clinic scheduled for Feb. 22, and encourages anyone who is interested to come out.

In Rutland, the curling season runs from November through early March. In the off months, opportunities to play are available if the club is willing to travel. This June, for instance, Woodstock will play host to the Arena Club Curling Contest, which will bring together a number of arena curling clubs on the east coast.

Anderson and Murphy welcome the break. Both of them avid golfers, the spring and summer are reserved for the links. I note how much curling resembles putting – how you must read the playing surface and have the right touch. (This time my analogy is well received.)

“Golf and curling go hand-in-glove,” Murphy agrees, adding, “Both games play in foursomes and both are very social. The seasons even dovetail.”

As play gets under way, the teams quickly become immersed in the game. The skips shout “sweep” down the ice while the fervent rustle of brushes on ice rises and falls until everyone grows quiet as they intently watch the stones glide into the house. Occasionally, a crack echoes across the ice as one stone strikes another and then, a cheer or a groan depending on the team.

Thoroughly underdressed for the evening, I didn’t last too long on the ice. Despite the recent addition of walls, Giorgetti Arena is still a fiercely cold place. It may be 10 degrees outside, but the near frostbite was worth it.

To find out more about curling in Rutland, visit http://www.rutlandrocks.com or call the Rutland Rec. Department at 773-1822.

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