Lake Norman & Mooresville

Curling in Charlotte? Harder than it looks

"I could be an Olympian."

That's the thought that ran through my head over and over as I sprawled on my couch watching curling at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

I didn't really understand the rules, but it looked like shuffleboard on ice. I've bowled since I was 6 years old, and the delivery looks about the same.

No problem, I thought.

This past month, I took my first step to Olympic stardom when I joined the Charlotte Centre Curling Club for their weekly league at the Pineville Ice House.

A curling club in Charlotte? It surprised me, too.

The Charlotte Centre Curling Club was started by Jay and Ronda Harlow. They first saw the sport when it debuted in the 1998 Winter Olympics and started learning more about it.

Ronda, 37, and Jay, 39, started spending time with the Triangle Curling Club. Last November, they decided to start their own club. They set up a Facebook page and website. When the Olympics started in February, interest in the sport exploded.

"It really started to blossom thanks to the 80-plus hours we had on TV," said Ronda. "Thanks, NBC."

During the Olympics, more than 500 people expressed interest in the club, she said.

The club's first event was a social at Fox and Hound restaurant in Ballantyne on February 20. About 30 people showed up to watch the U.S. men's curling team beat Sweden even though Ronda put the event on the website and Facebook just days before. On the same day they selected officers. A month later, the club was on the ice at the first "Learn to Curl" event.

Since March the club has been going strong, holding several more events and starting their first league June 5.

I went to the Ice House expecting just to throw a few practice stones and then watch the match.

Jay had other ideas.

"You're going to throw my first two stones," he said, and proceeded to give me my first lesson.

Outside of the rink, Jay threw down the hack, which is what you push off to throw the stone (think starting block for a runner).

Then he gave me a PVC pipe contraption to hold on with my left hand for balance. Next, he handed me a slider that would attach to the bottom of my left shoe. It was straight, slick plastic.

Then came the stone, a 40-pound hunk of granite with a handle on top. A used set of 16 stones costs $5,500. The club rents three sets from the Grand National Curling Club for about $1,200 a year. And the stones actually do curl, based on the angle of the handle when you release it.

Now that I had all the equipment, it was time to learn the technique.

Jay told me to place my right foot in the hack and put the slider on my left foot. Then I was to squat down and take the stone in my right hand. After that, it's just a simple motion: bring your weight back, pull back the stone and the sliding foot, then push off the hack and watch the stone slide gracefully down the ice.

At least, that's what's supposed to happen.

I was happy to learn that most of the people in the club were also new to the sport. Geoffrey Gooch, 35, is in his first year with the league. He first saw the sport when he was living in Florida.

"I was that guy that would stay up to three in the morning watching it," he said. The strategy of the game is what he liked about curling and compared it to chess. Gooch, who grew up playing several sports, said that curling is not easy.

"You're going to fall," he reassured me. That's about the same reaction I got from all the members of the league.

Even Jay and Ronda didn't get out on the ice until last fall, but have since taken instructor lessons with the Triangle club so they could teach curlers in Charlotte.

The league also has a few transplants who have been playing for a while. Eric Cable played in Chicago before moving to Charlotte and actually tried to start a curling club here before the Harlows. Stacie Pinnavaia started playing in Detroit five years ago before moving to Charlotte.

Then there's Jim Dosen. He grew up in Wisconsin and has been curling for 50 years. His grandfather and father were curlers, and they set up a club in Wisconsin.

"When I moved down here, I thought I got away from it," said Dosen, 65.

To prep the ice, Jay and Dosen sprayed hot water on the curling sheets to add texture. Then they dipped the hacks in water and set them on the ice to freeze. They also set the stones on a sheet of ice to try to keep them from melting the ice. Recently, the club had four full curling sheets installed in the rink's ice, including the hog lines (the line that you must release the stone by) and eight houses (the circles that you are trying to throw the stone in).

Curling, like golf, is a sport based on good sportsmanship. (Both sports started in Scotland.) Before the game, everyone shook hands and said "Good curling."

Jay is the third thrower on the team, which means I would be sweeping for the first two players. I stood with another player just across the hog line, waiting for the throw. After the stone crossed the line, I went to work.

"Sweep!" yelled James Kotwicki, our skip. I ran down the ice in tennis shoes, furiously sweeping in front of the stone. Some sweepers fell; I didn't.

I did, however, underestimate the cardio involved with sweeping. After running with four stones, I was breathing hard and starting to break a little sweat. Now it was my turn to throw.

As I set my foot in the hack, my Olympic dreams flashed through my head. I set my foot in the hack, grabbed onto my PVC balance handle with my left hand and slipped the slider onto my left foot. Finally, I knelt down and grabbed the stone. Sochi Olympics in 2014, here I come.

As soon as I moved my weight back I knew I was in trouble. I had literally no grip with my sliding foot. It was going all over the place as I brought it and the stone back. By the time I pushed forward off the hack, I had no balance.

Before I could even think, my rear end was on the ice and I was watching the stone come to a stop about halfway down the sheet, not even far enough to count.

Gooch was right: this is a lot harder than it looks. The second throw wasn't much better. I still ended up on the ice and the stone didn't go as far as the first time.

I was a spectator for the rest of the game. Some people tumbled, but for the most part things went smoothly. Pretty good for just the third week. As things were finishing up, Ronda asked if I'd like to stay around for the broom stacking.

"You need to get the full curling experience," she said. Assuming she wanted me to help clean up, I agreed. This is when I learned the most important part of the game. .

Broom stacking is code for sitting down with all the curlers and enjoying a few cold beverages. Dosen said that in some clubs he played in, curlers were required to stay at least 10 minutes after to socialize with the other team. Ronda said that the social aspect of the sport is what drew her to it.

My Olympic dreams may be put on hold, but that's OK. A few hours playing on the ice then sharing drinks and stories with 30 friends? Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

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