Lake-area players are mad about the sport of curling

In the big picture, Jay and Ronda Harlow are still novices in the 400-year-old sport of curling.

But when it comes to the sport's fledgling existence in the Charlotte area, the Harlows are some of the more skilled, experienced curlers you'll find.

The Mooresville couple had been curling for all of a couple of weeks when they became instrumental in forming the Charlotte Centre Curling Club last year. Mad about the sport she's known for only about four years, Ronda was chosen club president as the icy sport looked to gain some traction in the region.

Jay, 40, and Ronda, 38, are among a handful of Charlotte curlers from the Cabarrus County/Lake Norman area. They are joined by Jim Kotwicki, 34, a bank risk-assessment consultant from Harrisburg, and Karen Miller, 31, a race team administrative assistant from Kannapolis.

Curling often draws comparisons to shuffleboard on ice. Two teams consist of four players each. Each of the four players takes a turn throwing (sliding) 40-pound polished granite rocks toward a bull's-eye-shaped target, often with a bit of spin to make it "curl." Their teammates try to control the rock's speed and direction by briskly sweeping the ice in front it.

Like many newcomers to curling, Jay got turned on to the sport by watching it as part of the Olympics television coverage. Returning as an Olympic sport in 1998, curling took hold of Jay in 2006, and he quickly got his wife hooked.

The Harlows searched for a local program and finally found Raleigh's Triangle Curling Club. They threw their first rocks just before last year's Winter Olympics in February.

Raleigh officials talked with the Harlows about developing a club in Charlotte, and they put a feeler out around the region. They had 26 people show up at a television viewing party, and the group became the club's original members.

With a membership of more than 40, the Charlotte Curling Club is about to start its first winter-league season next month. It regularly holds "learn to curl" sessions for interested newcomers and Friday night pickup games for established members.

Kotwicki became interested about the same time as the Harlows.

"It was one of those things you looked at and laughed at," Kotwicki said. "I thought, 'What are these guys doing sweeping the rock down the ice?'"

He played the 2006 season with the Triangle club but had to quit when its start time became too late for the 21/2-hour ride. Then a friend who moved to Raleigh last spring gave Kotwicki a place to sleep after a long night of curling, allowing him to reconnect with the Triangle club.

Soon Raleigh club officials put Kotwicki in touch with Ronda Harlow, and Kotwicki quickly transferred his broom and shoes to the Charlotte club. He played as a substitute on a summer league team and was named "skip," or player-coach, of his own team in the fall league.

A key substitute on his fall league team was Miller. A native of Washington state, Miller has the closest geographic ties to the cold-climate sport of any of the local players. Miller had never curled, though, until she read about the formation of the Charlotte club in the Observer last year.

Entering the winter season, Miller is a full-fledged member of Team Kotwicki. She is the team's first lead, which means she throws the first rock for her team, then serves as a sweeper for her teammates as they throw.

"You can't get too frustrated while playing curling," Miller said. "I'm doing it for fun, so there are people that would disagree with me. (But) I'm not going to let it add more stress in my life."

The Harlows have tried to alleviate players' stress by becoming certified curling instructors. Kotwicki hopes to do the same at some point.

"Curling is a sport," Jay Harlow said. "But beyond that, it's all about the fellowship and camaraderie. It's very much a gentleman's sport."