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By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
SARASOTA -- Until a fateful moment last February, the only curling Rich and Lynne Rosa had done was on the sofa in front of their TV.
But last-second tickets to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City led them by chance one night to Olympic Square, where a boisterous throng had gathered.
"There were two giant screen TVs, and there must have been 150 people crowded around," Rich says. "I thought they were giving something away."
"I thought it was ice skating," Lynne says.
Hardly. It was the women's bronze medal game between Canada and the United States in curling, the odd-looking event that resembles shuffleboard on ice, mixed with a broom-sweeping display that would put any custodial staff to shame.
"People were screaming and waving flags," Lynne says. "I was like, 'Wow! What is this?' "
For Rich, a relentless, entrepreneurial type who once made the Guinness Book of World Records for longest time flying a kite (more than 18 hours), the gears instantly began to churn.
"I thought, 'I'm not in such great shape, but I think I could do that,' " he says. "I had this idea: Wouldn't it be wild to do this thing in Florida?"
He just never imagined how wild.
* * *
Curling was getting plenty of attention elsewhere last year, particularly as the butt of late-night TV jokes.
David Letterman offered 10 ways to make curling more exciting, such as (No. 10) "How about calling it anything but curling?," (No. 5) "Throw in one of them miniature-golf windmills" and (No. 1) "First place gets gold medal, the rest are sent to Camp X-Ray."
Something in the frantic broom action sets the event apart from, say, the drama of downhill skiing.
Curling enthusiasts have heard the wisecracks for years, but they make no apologies for a sport that has been around since the 1500s in northern Europe.
Pioneered in Scotland, the game has remained essentially unchanged: Two teams of four players push rocks (42-pound hunks of granite) down the ice in an area 140 feet long and 15 feet wide, doing their best to place the rocks in the center of a 12-foot-diameter target.
On a given turn, one player pushes the rock, one player (the skip) gives directions and the other two sweep like crazy, creating a friction on the ice that steers the rock toward the center of the archerylike target (known as the house). The opposing team follows, and the closest shot to the center gets a point.
The rocks always tend to curl after being pushed, hence, the sport's name.
Rich and Lynne Rosa knew nothing of this as they watched in Utah. But upon returing to Sarasota, Rich couldn't wait to log onto the Internet to absorb everything he could about curling, which debuted as an Olympic medal sport in 1998.
"He was on the Internet day and night -- 'Oh, did you know this or that' -- and finally I said, 'You're really going to do this, aren't you?"' Lynne says. "And he said, 'Yup. We're going to have the first curling club in the state of Florida.' "
* * *
But he pressed on, contacting the U.S. Curling Association in Wisconsin to find out how to start a club from scratch.
The association was delighted to get the call. Curling clubs have started cropping up in nontraditional areas such as Texas and Tennessee. But Florida was still unexplored curling terrain.
"We were really happy and somewhat surprised but not totally given the expansion of hockey and figure skating in the South," says Rick Patzke, the association's director of communications. "What was most surprising was Rich's background -- never having thrown a rock in his life and how much he was behind this. He had this real passion."
The association gave him suggestions and background, and Rich went to work, sending out news releases around the state, announcing the formation of the Florida Curling Club. The first meeting was called for April 27. The Rosas thought that maybe a dozen or so people might show. They were amazed at the turnout: 50 people.
The club had no rocks, no gear and a leader who had never seen the sport until two months before.
But much to the Rosas' astonishment, about three-quarters of the people who turned out had curled before, including one former U.S. world champion and former competitors from Alaska, Canada and other points north who had settled in Florida.
They had figured their curling days were over, but they jumped at the chance to push some more rocks.
"All the experienced curlers knew I needed help, and they all gave it," Rich says. "And even though we didn't have any equipment, they believed in us."
Feeling energized, the Rosas picked up the pace.
They contacted JP Igloo Ice and Sports Complex in Ellenton, a hockey and skating venue that welcomed the idea of a curling club and even painted official curling marks on the ice.
At the suggestion of the curling association, they called Dakota Curling Supplies in North Dakota and received a free rock, a broom and gear to display.
They stayed up late creating flip charts, organizational forms and promotional literature. Then, Rich recontacted the curling association and coaxed the group into sending 16 free rocks (which cost $200 a pop) to help get things going.
"Rich has a marketing background, and he put it all to use," Lynne says. "Every day, he'd e-mail a rock joke to the (curling association) member services official. They were really stupid jokes, but she realized we weren't going away. So we got the free rocks, and they even paid for the shipping costs!"
At a May clinic, 75 people showed up to watch a presentation by a former president of the curling association and three instructors.
By July, the group had swelled to almost 90, was stocked with equipment and set to begin its first season of league play.
* * *
It was quite a feat but not the first time Rich's persistence had paid off in a big way.
In the early 1970s, growing up in Stamford, Conn., Rich had tried his best to get the attention of a female high school classmate, Lynne Mallozzi. He was the class president at Stamford Catholic, a basketball star and a big man on campus. But Lynne wasn't interested.
"He'd bring my mother flowers and ask if I was home. And I'd be there in the background, saying, 'No, Ma, I'm not here,"' she says. "I thought he was cute, but he was going out with all these other girls, and I just didn't need that."
Rich got attention, meanwhile, for organizing a marathon basketball game at school in 1973 and winding up with his first mention in Guinness for a 120-hour hoops exhibition.
Eventually, they went their own ways. Lynne went into the family data programming business, got her college degree in that field and settled in Stamford to help run her parents' office.
Rich went to Florida and got into the restaurant management business. But when his mother died, he moved back to Stamford to help his dad. It happened to be just before the Class of 1974's 10-year reunion, so the ex-class president volunteered to organize it.
The first move he made was to recruit a helper. He called Lynne.
"I could tell he had calmed down a little bit, and I thought it was very sensitive of him to want to come back to be with his family," she says. "So I figured, after 10 years, I might as well give him a chance."
Rich won her over with his trademark determination, bringing her a different gift for 12 days straight. Five months later, he gave her an engagement ring, and within a year, they were married.
Lynne soon started a data processing company, while Rich managed a chain of Brach's restaurants. Then they went into the computer business together, starting a franchise of data processing offices to handle bulk mailings. They had 50 employees and worked seven days a week, and Lynne was feeling burned out.
"So when somebody offered to buy our business, we went for it," she says. "The only stipulation was they buy my mom's business, too. And they did."
They had a pile of money from the sale and freedom to start over anywhere they wanted. So they picked the west coast of Florida.
* * *
The Rosas, both 46, started out a decade ago in south Venice. Rich went back into restaurant work, and they lived in a fancy, remodeled house that was featured in Sarasota Magazine.
But the lack of nightlife left them restless, so three years ago they moved to downtown Sarasota, not far from the historic district near Selby Gardens. They gutted and remodeled an Italian villa-style house and moved in a year and a half ago.
They poured plenty of cash and energy into the place, where they lived with their cats. The only things missing were new friends and a social life. The Florida Curling Club has solved that problem.
The group has become a big family. There are parties, chili cookoffs, snowman building contests outside JP Igoo and endless hours of curling. The second league season begins Feb. 2, and on March 28-30, the club will host its first "bonspiel," a big curling tournament. This one will bring competitors from as far as Scotland.
Rich and Lynne have heard all the curling jokes, but they take them in stride. "We don't mind. Hey, we laughed when we first saw it, too," Lynne says. "But we just tell people, come out and try it. It's a lot harder to do than you may think."
Lynne serves as "social queen" and sits out the curling because of a vertebrae injury. Rich tries his best to compete. "He's the lousiest player on the whole club, but he loves it."
So does everyone.
"I never thought I'd curl again until this came along," says Mike Slyziuk, an 83-year-old resident of Sun City. "I'm having a great time."
Originally from Manitoba, Slyziuk won U.S. national curling championships in 1959 and 1963. Now he's a participant and a mentor to others. "I'm glad to be able to help the new curlers learn the techniques and help the ones who have curled before. It takes a lot of practice to do it right. It takes the right delivery and studying the opposition," he says.
Debbie Katren of Englewood grew up in a curling family in northern Illinois. Her mom and dad curled. When she was a child, they would put her on a rock and push her down the ice. Later, she competed in a curling facility her grandfather helped build.
"My husband and I moved to Florida in '85, and the only thing Florida didn't have that we missed was curling," she says. "I had just thrown all our curling stuff away when I saw Rich talking about the club on TV. I thought, 'This guy's got no clue!' But I called him right up, and he was so dedicated to making this happen. And it has. Who would've thought?"
And who'd have thought this? In 2004, the Florida Curling Club will be eligible to compete in the U.S. nationals, and Rich Rosa says the club will give it a shot. But their big dream is to compete in 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy.
"Absolutely," Lynne says. "If the Jamaican bobsled team could do it, why can't we?"
-- For more information about the Florida Curling Club, call (941) 330-2386 or visit www.floridacurling.com on the Internet.
The basic rules of the game are this: Each player on a four-member team "delivers" the 42-pound "rock" toward the target, alternating with players on the opposing team. Sixteen rocks are thrown in a game, with one point awarded each round for the rock that comes to rest closest to the center of the target. Two members of the team handle the brooms, brushing the pebbled ice to make the rock travel straighter and longer. The "skip" directs his teammates, and delivers last.
Curling has its own vocabulary. One perennial favorite is "Broomstacking" -- the termed coined centuries ago in Europe, when players would stack their brooms by the pond after a competition, and drink Scotch together. The tradition -- with any beverage -- remains popular today. Socializing afterwards is part of curling.
See http://www.floridacurling.com for more curling terms, background and links.
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From the wire