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Curlers hope to find audience

First looks can deceive, the participants of the centuries-old sport say.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- So, what do you want to know about curling?

Amy Wright and Andy Borland, among the United States' best at the sport, recently spent about an hour trying to explain why it is so exciting -- in a cerebral sort of way.

Borland wasn't doing a very good job.

"For someone who's never seen the sport, it may be like watching paint dry," he said.

Realizing he had just failed Public Relations 101, Borland regrouped. His eyes lit up, and his voice grew strong.

"But once you've played it and once you've thrown a few rocks, I think most people get an incredibly different take."

For most in this country, curling was something seen occasionally on ABC's Wide World of Sports. It was kind of like shuffleboard. It was cool because it was played on ice and ... wow, did you see those guys frantically sweeping the ice in front of that sliding stone?

Curling makes its second appearance as an official event at next month's Salt Lake City Games. It is hoped a good showing will boost the sport played mostly in colder, northern states and whose participation number has been stagnant at about 15,000.

Borland knows it will be a tough sell. This isn't Canada, which televises its Olympic trials and whose curlers, thought to be the world's best, are asked for autographs in restaurants.

"For people who haven't seen curling before, it's difficult to appreciate what's going on," Borland said. "There is a lot of strategy in curling. It's a game that requires finesse and physical skills and good mental strength."

And the ability to sweep, sweep, sweep. But more about that later.

The game has 10 ends, or innings. Each team delivers eight stones per end, two from each of four players.

The idea is to deliver the stones -- or rocks, the terms are interchangeable -- 146 feet to a 12-foot circular area known as the house. Each stone that ends up closer to the center of the circle than any of an opponent's is worth one point.

Opponents regularly knock each other's stones out of the house. Sometimes, stones are set up to block. To get around them, a stone can be curled by a gentle spin as it is sent on its long journey down the ice.

White said reading the slopes in the ice is like reading a golf green.

"Oftentimes, it is considered chess on ice," White said. "Once you understand that, so many things can happen and so many things are happening at so many different levels. And that's what makes it interesting to watch.

"You can turn a rock one way or another. And if you turn it too much, your shot is lost. You have to know when to sweep a rock."

Sweeping the ice removes frost or debris that might slow the stone or push it off course. It also creates a thin layer of moisture that allows the stone to travel farther.

Each stone weighs 42 pounds and, Borland said, is made from granite found on an island off the coast of Scotland, where the game was developed in the 16th century.

That granite, more than any other, Borland said, allows the transfer of energy from one stone to another when they collide. That is key when trying to knock an opponent's stone out of the house. For those playing, it is an intricate combination of skill and nerves. For those watching for the first time, it is simply a bit strange.

"I like how they slide down the ice," ski jumper Alan Alborn said. "But I didn't really know what they were doing with those brooms. I guess they're trying to knock each other off with those stones. But other than that, nothing."

"I watched it for about 20 minutes once on TV," freestyle skier Toby Dawson said. "But I think because I'm so bad at bowling, it didn't appeal to me."

That's why White said a big Olympic show is key to kindling interest. White said she was hooked as a 12-year-old watching the 1976 World Championships in her hometown of Duluth, Minn.

"People were everywhere," White said. "There were flags and banners and horns going off. There was a bagpipe in one corner and a trumpet in the other. And people were chanting Scot-land and Ca-na-da.

"I sat there and pointed down and told my dad and said, "That's what I want to do when I grow up.' I knew I wanted to be a curler on that world stage."

The world stage will be without White and Borland, neither of whom made the U.S. Olympic team. But that hasn't diminished their commitment to the sport.

"Once you start it, it never ends," White said. "You do it from the very beginning until you can't get down into the house anymore and throw stones."

And that is really all you need to know about curling.

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