NAJ WIKOFF - 10/30/2009

     “Yup,” said Amber McKernan. “Sweep now.


    “Hurry. Haaard. Hard. Hard girls. Sweeeep.


    “Sweep hard, Hard. Hard. HARD! HARDER!


    “Stop. That’s good. Good job.”


    “The curling sheet is approximately 150 feet long,” said Tom McKernan earlier in the evening to  about a dozen people attending the Lake Placid Curling Club’s first of two classes on how to curl. “There are two teams with 4 people on each team: a lead, a second, a third, who often serves as the vice skip, and the skip. Each person throws two stones per game, which equals thirteen stones per end. The skip will be at the far end and will have a broom, which will be the target that you will throw your stone at. He or she will give you directions on how to throw the stone, how to deliver the stone down the ice, how hard and what type of curl to put on the stone.”


    “One person will be throwing the stone and two people will be sweeping. The sweeping does two things: It cleans the ice and it warms up the ice to keep the stone from slowing down. When you throw a stone, it will curl, and curl more the slower it goes. The circles are the target, called the house. They are 12 feet in diameter. There are basically two types of shots: the draw shot; and the takeout shot where you use your stone to knock an opponent’s stone out of play. The skip calls the shot. He or she develops the strategy for the game. The team with the stone closest to the center wins. The more stones they have closer to the center than any of the opponent’s stones, the more points they get.”


    “We usually play 8 games,” Betsy Whitefield, president of the Club. “It is important to have your broom on the ice at all times as it will help your balance. If you fall, try to relax and twist so a meaty part hits the ice.”


    “You are going to use a whole different set of muscles than you are used to, so it is important to warm up and stretch those muscles before the game,” said Amber, then taking them through a variety of stretching exercises.


    “I think the Zamboni is finished preparing the ice,” said Tom after we watched a short video and learned the proper shoes to use and how to attach a slider on one foot. “Let’s go out on the ice and have some fun.”


    Following a full group session where the new participants learn the art of sweeping, and Amber gives them her full vocal encouragement of when to sweep and how hard, meaning harder than you thought possible, they are divided into three groups, each with a coach who has passed a nationally sanctioned instructors course.  The goal is to get the new people comfortable enough on the ice and with a good basic grasp of the skills so they can participate in a game. That they do so is impressive, akin to skiing down from the top of the beginner’s slope within an hour of first being handed a ski pole.


    “You want to keep your body nice and square,” said Amber to Jason Scull. She has him squatting on the ice with one foot in the hack. In each hand is a polished granite stone, each weighing about 42 pounds.


    “So my toe will end up pointing behind me?” Jason said.


    “That’s right. Try not to let your knee hit the ice. OK, now slide out to me.” He does. “That was very good. Very good. OK Jennifer, do you want to try?”


    “Yes.”


    “It’s not a big step back. Now get down low.”


    “I think I’ll be more comfortable using my other leg. I’m a telemarker. I’m more comfortable on the other. It’s my strongest leg when I do a turn on a telemark ski.”


    “Whatever makes you most comfortable.”


    “OK, so now we are going to add the broom to the mess. Remember to keep it upside down and to use it for balance. Now slide to me,” said Amber.


    “Way up there?” said Jason.


    “Wherever is comfortable.” And so it continued through learning how to release the stone, how to add a left-or right-hand curl, how to stay ahead of the stone when sweeping, and how to get up.


    “When you put your knee down, you slipped and lost your balance,” Amber said.


    “So I noticed,” said Sarah Quinn.


    “It’s important to stay square, stay all lined up. Now let’s try a couple more.”


    Sarah releases two stones that go down the center of the ice.


    “Very good, very good. Brian, do you want to get into a game?”


    “Yea, I feel ready,” said Brian Stearns.


    “I like the integrity of the sport,” said Tom. “It’s extremely competitive, and very polite at the same time. Everybody is very responsible for every stone they burn or any other kind of infraction, and they will admit it and take themselves out of play.”


    “I like the competition, the camaraderie,” said Betsy. “It’s challenging. It’s very intense. I started curling seven years ago and took up golf five years ago. The focus and intensity is very similar, both crazy Scottish games.”


    “Well, what did you think of curling?” I said to Brian an hour later after a close two rounds that had the men beating the women by just one point.


    “It’s fun. That’s why I came out. I saw it on Canadian TV and it looked like it would be fun. It’s harder than it looks, trying to stay balanced while sliding on the ice and releasing the stone. We just moved to the area. We thought we’d try it out.”


    “Will you be back?”


    “Yes, definitely. We both joined the club.”


    “Jennifer and I really liked it,” said Jason Scull. “We had a very good time. I hope to bring a friend next week. He always wanted to curl. It’s fun. The most challenging was the balance when you are throwing the stone and trying to stay balanced through the slide. I like the sweeping a lot. It’s quite a workout.”


    “The trickiest part is learning how much weight to put into the stone when you throw it,” Brian said.


    “I loved it,” said Sarah Quinn. “I’m coming back. What a great experience and the people are so wonderful. I’ll definitely be back.”

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