Yalies flinging 44-pound cylinders of granite across ice, furiously scrubbing the surface in front of a moving rock.
Not quite the first thing that comes to mind when one envisions club sports. But the Yale College Curling Club is breaking the mold and bringing curling, a winter sport little-known in the United States, to Yale.
During the 2006 Winter Olympics, Michael Lindsay ’08 became fascinated by curling, Tivo-ing all the matches and soaking up as much of the sport as possible. Buoyed by his immediate attraction to the somewhat obscure sport with roots in the British Isles, he hatched plans to create a curling club at Yale.
“When we first started in October 2006, I trolled Facebook to find people who might be interested,” Lindsay said.
After convincing friends to join and prowling through Facebook ‘Interests,’ he temporarily capped the team at 12 people because of transportation issues in getting to the Nutmeg Curling Club in Bridgeport. After spending the winter learning the nuances of what Lindsay calls “one of the strangest sports in the world,” the fledgling program entered a regional competition in February against the likes of Tufts, Penn and Hamilton. Much to the surprise of Lindsay and his teammates, one of the two teams Yale entered won the entire tournament.
“We weren’t considering going to nationals until after winning the tournament,” Lindsay said.
With no formal qualifying process for the national collegiate tournament, the squad decided to send four players to the competition in Chicago over spring break. The Midwest is the closest thing to a ‘curling hotbed’ in the United States, and many of these programs descended on the North Shore Curling Club on March 16-18.
But there was to be no storybook ending at the national tournament, where the team’s run of good fortune quickly eroded away. One of the members got snowed in at Kennedy Airport, and another could not make it. The four-person team was quickly halved to two, Lindsay and Edward Chang ’10, one short of the bare minimum of three people needed to curl properly. Scrounging around for alternates from other teams, the pair managed to find a player from the University of Illinois willing to compete. But their misfortune continued — they finished 0-3 in the tournament, with two losses coming on the final throw. The team was happy with they way they played but left lamenting what could have been with those close losses.
Of course all of this still begs the question — what exactly is curling? The sport traces its origins back to Scotland over 500 years ago and was be played outdoors well into the 20th century. After appearing in the Olympics four times as an ‘exhibition sport’, it became a full-fledged event for the 1998 Nagano Games.
The first thing that makes curling different from most ice sports is the surface itself. Groundskeepers carefully maintain a beaded surface, which puts the ‘curl’ in curling, since it provides the friction that slows down the granite stones and allows them to curve.
The granite stones, which bear a striking resemblance to kettles, weigh 44 pounds and players slide the stone at a dartboard-like target placed 120 feet down the ice. After each throw, the stones are not removed from the surface, so knocking an opponent’s stone off the target while keeping your own on the target becomes the general strategy.
After each stone is thrown, two scrubbers use brooms to scrape the ice in front of the stone to affect how far it goes and how it curves. Meanwhile, the team captain, called the ‘skip,’ stands at the end of the rink and signals directions to the thrower and the scrubbers. Both teams play 10 ‘ends,’ and in each end, both sides throw eight stones. Teams earn a point for every stone closer to the center of the target than the nearest of the opponent’s stones to the target. In a perfect inning, a team could score eight points, but this is extremely rare.
Curling’s nickname, ‘chess on ice,’ belies the immense strategy needed to play the game. Although most Americans have never heard of curling, our neighbors to the north have a rich heritage in the sport. The frenzy and enthusiasm for curling in Canada is only surpassed in magnitude by hockey. All major tournaments are televised and rabid spectators pack stadiums and follow matches.
But certain parts of Canada have a greater attachment to the sport.
“Saskatchewan has a tradition of great curling, particularly in the rural regions,” said Saskatoon native Jennifer Wang ’10. “The people I know who curl are really into it.”
Naturally, Canada traditionally dominates most competitions on an international level.
The Yale College Curling Club hopes to bring some of this same enthusiasm and love for the game to Yale, while building on its unexpected success in its inaugural season. Curling flies under the radar for most students at Yale, but it has managed to pique the interest of a few students, such as Nick Bayless ’10.
“I watched curling during the Olympics, and I was fascinated by how it was played and the strategy that was involved,” said Bayless, who is thinking about joining Yale College Curling Club next year.
Perhaps the sight of Yalies sliding 44-pound rocks across the ice won’t be so strange in the future.