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Curling, the sport 'sweeping' the country

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Curler delivers curling stone. (Photo courtesy of Darryl Horsman)

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Stuffed coyote posed with curling apparel. (Photo courtesy of Darryl Horsman)

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Curlers brushing ice. (Photo courtesy of Darryl Horsman)

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Curlers 'practicing' in the desert. (Photo courtesy of Darryl Horsman)

When Darryl Horsman moved from Calgary to Phoenix in 2001, he packed his specialty curling broom and curling shoes. But when Horsman arrived in the desert, there was no curling.

A year later, another group of Canadian ex-patriots tried to start a curling club at an ice rink in Scottsdale, outside of Phoenix, but they were turned away.

“We were the red-headed stepchild,” said Horsman, who remembers the comments some Americans made about his hobby: “‘Curling? Eh? Isn’t that just that goofy Canadian sport with sweeping and shouting?’”

Today, Horsman is president of the Coyotes Curling Club in Scottsdale, with more than 115 members. People now treat “curling as a cute dog you take to a park,” Horsman said. “People want to touch it and talk about it.”

Horsman and curlers across the nation have benefited from what might be the largest expansion of curling in United States history. In the wake of curling’s growing popularity as an Olympic sport, 40 new curling clubs have opened up nationwide since 2002, according to the United States Curling Association, which was founded in 1958. Most of them are in the South and West, some in places where naturally occurring ice doesn’t even exist.

Over that same period, the number of curlers registered with the USCA has increased 22 percent to 13,600, and that doesn’t include the 5,000 curlers the association estimates are unregistered. Long-established clubs in Minnesota, New York and Massachusetts have also seen dramatic increases.

“We have all the people we can accommodate,” said Sam Williams, president of Broomstones Curling Club in Wayland, Mass., a club whose membership has nearly doubled to 300 members since the 1990s. “We can’t really take anymore. We need more ice.”

The sport that fascinates thousands of new players originated in 16th century Scotland and resembles bocce on ice. It is played with two, four-player teams. One player sends a polished 42-pound granite stone sliding down the ice while two others brush the area in front of the stone to create a smooth path. The fourth player directs the others. Teams score a point for delivering the stone closest to the center of a target and an additional point for every stone closer than the opponents’ closest stone.

Men’s curling made a brief appearance as a medal sport in the 1924 Olympics, but was relegated to "demonstration sport" status until 1998, when both men and women could compete for medals.

The increase in people playing the sport is credited in part to the surprising popularity of televised curling in the past two winter Olympics. During the 2006 games, the match between the U.S. men’s team and Great Britain gave MSNBC an audience of 1.597 million viewers, its largest since the start of the Iraq War, according to an MSNBC news release. The U.S. women’s team versus Italy gave MSNBC its highest rating for the 5-to-8 p.m. time slot since the 2004 elections.

Among the many who picked up curling after the 2006 Olympics, was Kaatje Kraft, a geology teacher from Tempe, Ariz. At first, Kraft said, curling “just didn’t make any sense to me. It’s sort of ridiculous.”

But now Kraft, who has tried other unorthodox sports such as rock climbing and wood-chopping, said she’s a curler for life. “My husband and I have talked about the fact that if we ever move somewhere, now one of the requirements is that there needs to be curling.”

Curlers say the game--which is sometimes thought of as an old man’s sport--can be more physically demanding than people think. Kraft even injured her shoulder, most likely tearing a muscle by “over sweeping.” “Everyone tells me it sounds sort of lame that I managed to get myself injured by curling and that I should come up with a better injury,” she said.

Participants say the sport can be enjoyed by athletes of any age. New players include junior curlers ages eight to 18. Curling is a low cost sport, especially in comparison to other, more popular pastimes.

“If your kid says I want to be a hockey goalie, you’re talking $300 to $400 to get them the pads,” said Ken Thomson who coaches youth curling in Cape Cod, Mass. “If your kid says I want to curl, you just need a pair of sneakers.”

The Cape Cod Curling Club has 25 youth curlers and adult members travel around to elementary schools showing students how to curl using stones on wheels.

As the number of curling clubs increases, some members are looking to move into new facilities. Part of the problem, they said, is that most new clubs play in skating rinks where hockey players put deep gouges in the ice. Curling requires an even surface.

“When you throw a curling stone you want it to make a nice smooth arc and curl to where it’s going.” said Stuart Cohen, who helped found the Columbus Curling Club in Lewis Center, Ohio, in 2004. “When you’re on hockey ice it looks like a snake going down the ice.”

Horsman, the Phoenix curler, said his club also has to compete with hockey teams for ice time. Unfortunately, Horsman said, his club has more curlers than it has ice time.

But the former Canadian said he is still thrilled to have helped introduce curling to the southwestern United States. His Web site features people pushing a curling stone in the desert and a stuffed coyote posed next to a curling stone. “I told everybody it took a lot of bacon and a lot of dog treats to get it to sit like that.”

Recently, Horsman was in a bar playing shuffleboard when a man tried to give him playing tips. Horsman used the opportunity to talk about curling, which is sometimes called shuffleboard on ice. To Horsman’s delight, the man recognized the sport and knew of Horsman’s club.

That type of recognition “kind of makes me blush a little bit, I suppose,” Horsman said. “It makes you feel like we’ve made it a little bit.”

E-mail: aln2115@columbia.edu