On the ice: Curling is awesome and deserves respect

United States' Matt Hamilton throws a stone, right, as his sister and teammate Becca sweeps the ice during a mixed doubles curling match against China's Wang Rui and Ba Dexin at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Feb. 10.

If you’ve been watching the Pyeongchang Olympics and laughing off curling as a weird quadrennial pseudo-sport oddity of brooms and questionable athletic ability, I understand where you’re coming from.

I used to scoff, too. Then I got sucked into this weird and wonderful world.

Three winters ago, a friend asked me to fill in for a night on his curling team at the Aspen Ice Garden. He said I didn’t need any experience, didn’t need to know the rules of the game or basic strategies — I just needed flat shoes. I spent the night slipping and falling and, yes, giggling at the absurdity of this oversized shuffleboard game on ice.

Then I became a regular. I’m now in my fourth season as a member of the Legion of Broom, one of 24 teams in the Aspen Curling Club. On Wednesday nights at the Aspen Ice Garden, you’ll find me and about 100 other Aspenites doing battle on four curling sheets. There are some matching outfits, some beer (Shlomo’s Deli & Grill brought a keg to our match against them last year … they still beat us), some friendly trash talk and surprisingly fierce competition.

For most of us, a curling obsession starts as a goof. But gradually, you find yourself actually getting better and getting a little competitive. By this season, I was talking strategy over lunch with teammates and un-ironically fist-pumping when we won a tightly contested end.

There are two big breakthroughs for the club curler. When you figure out how to throw a stone without slipping and falling on the ice, it’s a huge moment. Things get a lot more fun after that. But the bigger leap is when you can actually get your stone to go where you want it to — when you understand the concept of “draw weight” and spin and “raising” and such, when you know when to sweep a stone to speed it up and when to leave it alone. That’s when things get interesting and when you start to understand why curling is often called “chess on ice.”

Often what you hear around Olympics is that curling is kinda cool because it’s the one Olympic sport that anybody — no matter what kind of shape you’re in — could theoretically master. The curling scene on Wednesdays in Aspen bares this out. It’s a cross-section of Aspen — old and young and big and small and male and female. On a given night, you might be playing a restaurant crew or the Aspen city manager’s team or a squad of architects or J-1 visa kids or some crusty Minnesotans.

Being a dues-paying member of the Aspen Curling Club also landed me a subscription to Curling News, the official publication of the United States Curling Association, which gives a window into the wide — surprisingly wide — world of curling in America. (The current issue includes a how-to on directional sweeping, a story on Zamboni driver-curler relations, profiles of the U.S. Olympic curling teams and results from bonspiels in every region of the country.)

And, of course, it makes watching the Olympic competitions a hell of a lot more fun when you get what’s going on. But even if you don’t, how can you resist? If you’ve been watching, you perhaps saw international curling heartthrob Anastasia Bryzgalova of Russia fall during the mixed doubles event. Or you heard a commentator describe Canadian John Morris as “the bad boy of curling” (he posted a photo of himself drinking with an American competitor in the locker room after a match this week and wrote, “I know it’s the Olympics … but at the end of the day it’s still curling”). This stuff is gold.

Maybe there’s a curling craze coming to America — maybe it’ll become a huge pop-culture happening, the way that televised poker blew up during the Chris Moneymaker era. Curling is at least twice as interesting and far less likely to bankrupt your family.

Even Mr. T is on board. The “A-Team” star and second-best “Rocky” villain fell for curling this week and tweeted: “Curling is kind of different, but it’s exciting. It’s not as easy as it looks. It takes some skills for sure. I like it!”