I Went Curling In Connecticut And So Can You
Novice curlers, be warned: The first time an instructor tells you to launch yourself forward, stone in one hand and handy stabilizing bar in the other, you might forget how feet work.
That’s how I came to be sprawled on a soft, green carpet at the Norfolk Curling Club in front of a few dozen other people waiting to try the sport that captivates and confuses American audiences every four years during the Winter Games of the Olympics.
Curling, it turns out, is harder than it looks, although it doesn’t take long for most people to get the hang of the basics. That’s what curlers at the Norfolk club hope to show by holding open houses, like the one that brought more than 100 people to the 6-year-old building way up in the state’s northwest corner on Saturday.
Just a few lessons can help people new to this centuries-old Scottish sport become strategizing sweeping machines — or at least competent players with a grasp of the angle of release or the stone rotation. Players young and old, male and female, skilled and less skilled all compete alongside and against each other.
“The ice is the great equalizer,” says George Zavagnin, one of about 100 members of the Norfolk Curling Club.
On Saturday, Zavagnin tended bar in the cozy lounge that overlooks the club’s ice rink, where volunteers were teaching the basics to about a dozen people at a time.
The wobbly, first-time curlers came from as far as Hartford and Newington to learn the techniques, which requires far more coordination and balance than Olympic athletes let on.
Just this month, a pair of Canadian scientists released a paper attempting to explain the physics of the game, titled “First principles pivot-slide model of the motion of a curling rock: Qualitative and quantitative predictions.”
In practice, players simply develop a muscle memory for the sport: Push off a block with your dominant foot but keep your weight off your dominant hand; keep your head up and eyes straight ahead, not on the ice; let the stone go at just the right time, and with just the right push.
After her first lesson, Heather Prescott of Collinsville came off the ice tired but smiling.
“They kept making me do it over and over again,” she said.
The triathlete and cross-country skier came alone to the open house, inspired by the Canadian teams’ performance in Pyeongchang. She was on the fence early Saturday about making the trek to Norfolk until she turned on the TV and watched the latest curling match.
The Winter Games also brought out Alex Dumschott of West Hartford, Nate Hoey of Watertown and their fathers.
“Haven’t we all watched curling on the Olympics and thought, ‘How is that a sport?’” Dumschott asked, midway through his first lesson. “You do it and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ There’s a lot of technique. I can’t even keep up with the rock out there.”
Soon after I got on the ice — Courant features reporter Suzie Hunter and I crashed the Dumschotts/Hoey team — I tumbled backwards trying to sweep the deceptively fast, 40-pound granite stone.
In curling, you should know, it’s polite for players and spectators to withhold comment when someone does poorly. And it’s good etiquette to compliment opponents when they do well. That tradition of good sportsmanship is an important part of the spirit of the game.
So it should be no surprise that more than one Norfolk curler told me I had the best fall of the day.
All I’ve got to show for the effort is a quarter-sized bruise on my elbow, though worse curling injuries do happen.
Upstairs in the lounge, five-year club member Jonathan Zwick sports three rows of stiches on his head from a recent fall. His team was up in points at the time, but they wouldn’t let him finish — something about the dangers of head wounds and bloody ice.
Curlers like Zwick take the sport as seriously as those who founded the Norfolk club in 1956. The old ways can still be seen in the photographs hanging on the club walls — the few photos digitized before the old curling center was destroyed by two arsonists in 2011.
There are the original members using corn-husk brooms to sweep second-hand stones across the frozen Tamarack Pond in 1957.
There’s Herb Robertson, the 1958 club president, wearing a Scottish kilt and tam o’shanter as he charges down the ice in the club’s first curling shed.
Today’s major curling tournaments, called bonspiels, are still a time for players to break out traditional Highland dress — if they have it — and listen to the sound of bagpipes start the games.
But the club’s new curling facility, which was built within 18 months of the old building’s destruction, is a far cry from corn-husk brooms and wooden sheds. Members lament the trophies, memorabilia and expensive stones they lost in the fire, but take plenty of pride in their new, state-of-the-art facility and booming membership.
“We’re the coldest ice box in the state,” says Dan Torrant, a former club president. “It helps to pass the winter.”
The club holds an open house during each Winter Olympics, netting five or 10 new members each time. In 2014, about 200 people flocked to the open house, waiting for lessons in a long line that stretched into the parking lot.
The state’s only other curling center, the Nutmeg Curling Club in Bridgeport, holds similar open houses, including one this Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Maybe I’ll give curling another go then. After all, Zavagnin says visiting different clubs is one of the best parts of the sport.
“It’s a social thing,” he said. “Once you meet and make friends with a curler, you’ve made a friend for life.”
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