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Today's word on journalism

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

"The First Amendment gives everyone -- including nuts -- free speech,
but free speech has a purpose: that the people may judge for themselves
and bury the nuts with indignation. We fail our founding fathers if we
let blowhards rage on talk radio, in little magazines and in nasty
books without delivering counterattacks.

   -- Barron's, Aug. 9, 2004 (Thanks to alert WORDster John Mollwitz)

Cache curlers sweep the ice


By Loni Stapley

March 30, 2004 | Lifting free weights with your arm to work your bicep. The process and shape in which homeless men's fingernails grow when they can't afford nail clippers. Using brooms to move heavy, kettle-shaped things. A sport kind of like horseshoes, but played on ice with brooms.

Curling. It has many different meanings depending on who you ask, but to the many die-hard fanatics of this lesser-known winter sport, curling is just a good time.

"Curling is a low-key, laid-back, fun game to play…that just about anyone can have success with," says Doug McFarlane, who's been curling for six years and recently moved to Ogden from Wisconsin, where the sport's a bit more popular. "Curling is all about having fun and being with fun people."

According to, curling is a sport that originated in Scotland and dates to the 16th century. Farmers passed time during long, bleak winters by sliding huge granite stones (retrieved from nearby channels when the tide was low) across frozen lakes. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, Scotland's climate warmed up enough so that the lakes rarely froze over anymore, thus bringing the sport indoors. By the mid-1800s, the Scots had come up with formal rules of play and established the necessary equipment required.

The sport spread throughout the world thanks to Scottish soldiers and emigrants, reaching North America in the late 1700s. It debuted in Logan in 2002, when the Cache Valley Stone Society was established. The club meets at the Eccles Ice Center every Monday night from 6 to 8.

Doug Jackson-Smith, an assistant professor in the department of sociology, social work, and anthropology at Utah State University, is one of the club's founders as well as its president.

"I lived in Wisconsin for 15 years. I had a lot of friends who curled, but I never tried. And then I came out here and saw the Olympics and I thought, ‘Jeez, that'd be fun to try curling,'" Jackson-Smith says.

The Eccles Ice Center had just been built, so Jackson-Smith says he and several others e-mailed the arena and asked if curling was going to be offered. The center got everyone together and the Cache Valley Stone Society was formed.

The club now has about 50 members, comprised of boys and girls and men and women of all ages. The youngest member of the club is 9 and the oldest is in his mid-60s.

Robin Pendery, an 11-year-old girl with her Pippi-Longstocking-red hair pulled back from her face in a loose ponytail, has been curling with her parents since the club was formed.

"I like it because it's competitive, but not like ‘Unngghh,'" she says. "It's fun and not too hard to learn."

Pendery and another young member of the club, Michael Gerbec, were involved in the recent Moscow-Utah Youth Games as part of the curling team. Robin was asked by curlers from the club in Ogden to be on the girl's team after playing in a tournament in October, because "not many girls curl in Utah."

About 40 members of the Cache Valley Stone Society are gathered on the ice tonight. All wear long pants and some sport heavy coats, gloves, and beanies to keep warm inside the refrigerator-temperature arena. Some hold brooms, looking somewhat like confused janitors who have lost their way and wound up on the ice. The official bonspiel, or curling match, has yet to begin, but some members are practicing throwing the 40-pound curling stones across the ice. The stones look something like gray doughnuts – minus the hole in the middle – with car handles attached to the top and make a rumbling sound like a distant fighter jet's engines starting up as they glide down the ice. A petite woman with chin-length midnight-black hair releases a stone that glides down the ice and hits into another stone that has been lying dormant, the sound -- like a billiards player breaking racked balls at the start of a game – echoing throughout the arena.

A man, about 19 years old with dirty-blonde hair and a Pacific-Ocean-blue rugby shirt on, gets ready to release a stone. He starts in a crouched position, then lunges forward on his right leg with his left stretched out behind him, keeping his back parallel to the ice as he moves his right arm forward and lets go of the stone. He slides about 5 feet across the ice, pulling his left leg underneath him and resuming his crouch, somewhat reminiscent of the stance a man takes before a marriage proposal, before falling awkwardly on the ice and laughing at himself.

"That would not be proper technique," a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length chocolate-brown hair and a mischievous smile on her face says, "they're just warming up."

Jackson-Smith points out that most club members are relative novices to the sport. A lot of them got interested after seeing curling during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"Most of us have only curled a year and a half or less," he says.

Fortunately, curling seems to be an easy sport to catch on to.

"It's a lot of fun. If it sticks for people -- if they can get past being comfortable sliding on the ice -- it's a pretty fun, challenging sport," Jackson-Smith says. "The rules of the game are pretty straight-forward. You try to get your stones close to the center of the targets."

Curling, says, is played on an ice surface 146 feet long – roughly the length of half a football field – and 14 feet wide. At the end of each side of the playing surface is a bull's-eye embedded in the ice, called the house. Each team takes turns trying to place stones inside the house. A really good shot will land inside the button, a smaller circle inside the house. Whoever's closest to the button at the close of each end (like an inning in baseball) gets the points.

"You don't have to be on the button in the middle – whoever's closest gets the points," Jackson-Smith says. "They get as many points as they have stones inside the rings that are closer than the other team's nearest stone."

If only getting the stone to go where you want it to was that easy.

The curling stone is considered to be the sport's most important piece of equipment. Made of pure granite, each weighs about 40 pounds and has a concave circle on the bottom, so that only a small band of the stone actually touches the ice. Jackson-Smith says this helps the stone to slide more easily because there's not as much friction – otherwise it wouldn't move at all.
Jackson-Smith also says that stones are the "most expensive thing by far." Coming in matched sets of 16, a new set costs about $6,000 or roughly $300 to $400 per stone. The club has been able to buy used sets for about $125 to $200 for each stone. It currently has four sets and is hoping to buy a fifth this spring.

While the stone is the most important piece of equipment used in curling, it may also be the most unpredictable.

The first time McFarlane curled, the United State Women's Olympic Curling Team was practicing on the next sheet over.

"I was amazed at how graceful they were as they glided down the ice and the relative ease of putting the stone where they wanted it to go," he says. "I, on the other hand, was not so graceful and found it difficult to control where the stone would go. I didn't fall down, but…there seemed to be so many things to think about. After a while they all blend together and become more natural, but that first stone seemed to have a mind of its own."

Jackson-Smith says being a newcomer to the sport can be frustrating. As you release the stone, you have to try and gauge speed, aim, and how far it's going to move across the ice.

"At this stage, we can't control it as well as really good curlers. You know what you want to do, but executing is another thing," he says. "The stones don't go straight – as they slow down, they bend – or curl – to the right or the left, so you have to take that into account."

That's where the skip can help. Not the Skip from Gilligan's Island, but the one who is the leader of the curling team.

Teams are comprised of four players: the person delivering the stone, two sweepers, and the skip. The player delivering the stone wears either curling shoes or a ‘slider' over the top of one shoe.

"When [you're] throwing stones, you have to wear something that's extra slippery," Jackson-Smith says.

He has his own pair of curling shoes, which cost him $90 from a curling store in Wisconsin, that have rubber soles which can be removed on the sliding foot to reveal a slippery, Teflon-like material. Most curlers in the club, however, just use sliders, which strap onto the bottom of your shoe and are made of a slippery surface to help the thrower slide across the ice more easily. Jackson-Smith points out that sliders are only worn when throwing – otherwise you'd be down on the ice the whole night.

"The hardest part of the whole sport is sliding without falling over," he says. "It's like walking on glass when you have a slider on."

Despite the danger that a sport played on ice presents, Jackson-Smith says there are rarely any injuries. The most serious injury in the club's history happened just a few weeks ago, when a member slipped on the ice and broke his elbow.

"Since the ice is slippery and hard, some folks have received bumps and bruises when they lose their balance. We ask everyone to be really careful when on the ice," Jackson-Smith says.

When not throwing, players act as sweepers, which is where the brooms come into play. According to, the brush head of the broom is usually made of hog or horse hair, and long-handled brushes have mostly replaced brooms because they sweep more effectively. After a player delivers a stone, the two sweepers run along sideways just in front of it, frantically sweeping the path the stone travels on, looking somewhat like janitors trying to beat a deadline. This allows the stone to travel an extra 5 to10 feet in a straighter course.

"What sweeping does is melts the ice so there's not as much friction," Jackson-Smith says.

The leader of the team is called the skip, who is basically the team strategist and tells the other players what to aim at, what direction to curl the stone in, how hard to throw it, and when to sweep.

"Sweep! Sweep! Get on it, get on it!" the skip of one of the teams playing tonight yells, sounding like a mother telling her son to do his chores on a Saturday morning.

The skip doesn't sweep but throws last and is usually the best player.
So, how exactly does a person become a good curler?

"Like with anything, the more you practice, the better you become," McFarlane says. "I generally curl one night a week which is not really enough to become as consistent with my release as I would like. Being able to practice…leads to greater proficiency during a game situation."

Jeff Carr, a freshman at USU, takes a curling class through the university and has been curling for only a couple of months. He says curling requires "a lot less physical ability and a lot more mental ability than most people guess."

"Good curlers, like good chess players, need to be able to anticipate many moves ahead," he says. "Also, a sense of humor doesn't hurt."

Some of the aspects of curling may sound funny, but those who curl love the sport.

Carr says he likes it because it requires "a great deal of strategy combined with an element of luck." He originally began curling as "somewhat of a joke, but found it to be quite addicting."

Jennifer Eberhard, an 18-year-old USU student also taking the curling class, likes the sport because it tests both your physical and mental abilities.
"It is a great game that uses more than just your muscles," she says. "You have to work with depth perception, speed, and friction."

Eberhard and others say they get mixed reactions when people find out they're curlers.

"They kinda think it's dorky or whatever, but most people say, ‘Cool.' It's not something everyone does so it makes me more of an individual," she says. "I love to use curling as my quirky fact about myself. It's better than saying, 'Uh…I like the color blue.' It's different."

If nothing else, being a curler will help your social life, at least according to Carr.

"I get one of two reactions when people hear that I'm a curler – either utter confusion followed by many questions or I get excitement," he says. "I love telling people that I'm a curler. It always makes for good conversation."


Copyright 1997-2004 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-1000
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