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Friday, December 14
Curling: Yes, it's an Olympic sport

By Cynthia J. Faulkner

NEW YORK -- "You do what? Is that the one with the broom?"

It's a question curling's Team Lank frequently hears, although more people are familiar with the sport since it became an Olympic sport in 1998. Before then, few people this side of Canada had the slightest clue about the event that involves sliding rocks and sweeping brooms.

Erika Brown & Allison Pottinger
Team Lank's Erika Brown, left, and Allison Pottinger sweep a path for a shot at the U.S. Olympic Curling Team Trials.
"It's still a lot better than it used to be," said "lead" Tracy Sachtjen, "but it still needs more exposure."

Certainly, people in the United States don't flock to indoor ice rinks to watch curling, but Team Lank's vice skip Erika Brown said, "The recognition and the knowledge that the game even exists and at least sort of vague idea in your head of what we're talking about -- it's definitely there now more so than it was 10 or 15 years ago."

Team Lank -- so named for skip (or captain) Patti Lank -- is one of six women's teams and seven men's teams currently competing at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Ogden, Utah. The winner of the weeklong, double round-robin men's and women's tournaments qualify for the Salt Lake City Winter Games in February.

Team Lank trails undefeated Team Erickson but has the only chance to overtake them with two days remaining in the tournament.

The majority of curlers can be found in Canada, where they frequently televise tournaments, called bonspiels. "In Canada, there are few people who don't know what curling is," Lank's "second," Alison Pottinger says.

Not so in the United States, where the sport gets most of its attention during an Olympic year. Only then does the team get a call to appear on the Today Show to curl in New York's Rockefeller Center last month.

It's a different story in Canada.

Earlier this year, while at the airport in Winnipeg, Manitoba, someone asked them, "'What happened to you guys last night? You lost!'" Sachtjen recalled. "We didn't say our names, we didn't say anything. It was like, wow. He knew who we were, one, and he knew what curling is, which is so different.

"Everyone knows what curling is (in Canada) because it's on TV all the time -- if it's not hockey, it's curling."

In the United States, curling is often explained by comparing it to other sports such as boccie, golf or chess.

A guide to curling
The name comes from the spin -- or "curl" -- placed on the rock when it is thrown. Developed in Scotland in the 16th century, the game uses 42-pound granite rocks imported from Scotland's Alisa Craig and is played indoors on ice. It made its debut as an Olympic medal sport at Nagano in 1998.

The game is begun when players brace their foot in a "hack" (which resembles a starterís block). Four players on two teams throw a total of 16 rocks, two each, in an "end" (like an inning in baseball) and there are 10 ends in a game during a "bonspiel" (tournament). The object of the game is to hit a target, called a "house," at the other end of the ice. The house is a circular target, essentially a large dart board on the ground, with 12-foot, 8-foot and 4-foot rings.

The rock thrown closest to center of the house becomes the "shot rock," which activates scoring for rocks from either team that sit near that ring. For instance, if the shot rock is on the 8-foot ring, rocks on that ring get a point. But if on the next shot, someone's rock lands in the 4-foot ring it becomes the shot rock and none of the rocks in the 8-foot ring count anymore. That's where the strategy comes in.

Brooms are used to sweep the ice in front of the rock not to clean it but to create enough friction to make a thin layer of moisture to help the rock slide -- sometimes up to an additional 15 feet. Some rocks aren't swept at all. Brooms used to be made of straw, but today many players use a synthetic brush.

There are approximately 15,000 curlers in the United States with the majority from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Canada has almost 1.2 million of the estimated 1.5 million curlers in the world.

"To me one of the things people don't understand about the game is the amount of strategy involved," Brown said. "Some people describe it as sort of like chess, because you're planning ahead several shots in advance when you make decisions as far as where you want your teammates to throw.

"I think there's a lot of similarities between golf and curling," said Brown, who played golf for the University of Wisconsin. "That's one of the things I like about both games -- they are both really technical and both involve a lot of finesse and touch. A lot of the top curlers are good golfers, as well."

Brown said each sheet of ice is as different as each green is in golf.

"In curling, every sheet of ice that you play on is different and every shot you're throwing a different speed," she said. "It's either breaking left or right, real similar to a putt. In that respect there's a lot of judgment and analyzing that goes on. It's a lot of touch, feel."

Skips are the strategists who read the ice and call the shots for the team.

"I'm down at one end of the sheet and the other girls are at the other," skip Patti Lank explained. "So when I put my broom down, they actually aim at it, and then I'll tell them what turn to put on it. They'll make the rock curl, whichever turn I'll tell them, to go clockwise or counterclockwise."

The skip's job is made harder because the ice changes during a game.

"You really have to be on your toes," Lank said. "Sometimes you have to take a guess that it's slowing here or it's starting to get flat or curling or whatever."

Lank played hockey as a child but as she grew older it become more complicated to be on an all-male team, so she turned to curling.

"As soon as I tried out for my first ladies' team, I was made skip. I guess it was because they felt I had the most experience because I played with high schoolers when I was little," said Lank, who took notes while watching her parents play.

As in Lank's case, the game is often passed down from generations.

"You can play from 8 to 80. It's considered a lifetime sport," Lank said. "My daughters both play."

"My mom and dad always curled and they taught me how to curl," second Alison Pottinger said. "It sort of stuck. Every Sunday afternoon we'd go down to the curling club and throw stones and play."

Pottinger met her husband through curling.

"He's in the trials, as well, which is kind of neat," she said. Doug Pottinger is the skip for Team Pottinger.

"It's kind of neat that curling has brought me so many things -- even a husband -- which is kind of weird," Pottinger laughed. "I met him when we were at the Worlds in '95."

The Pottingers are not the only ones with another family member in the trials. Brown's brother Craig is a skip for Team Brown. Their dad runs Steve's Curling Supplies, which sells equipment to the 15,000-20,000 curlers in the United States. "I grew up answering the phones and taking orders for curling brooms," Erika Brown said.

Because there are few curlers in the United States, Team Lank's members are scattered across the country only coming together for bonspiels. Lank is from Lewiston, N.Y., Pottinger is from Eden Prairie, Minn., Brown lives in Madison, Wis., close to Sachtjen in Lodi, Wis. Their distance apart requires them to practice with local curling clubs.

"We play and practice with normal everyday people," Lank said. "Because we're so separated we play with people from the clubs and when you do get something going on like the Today Show or the Olympics, they get behind you."

"I think that's the best part about this sport," she said. "It's not an elitist sport."

Cynthia Faulkner is the Olympics editor for ESPN.com.

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