When the U.S. men’s team won Olympic gold in curling for the first time this year, people all over the country paid attention. Since the historic win a month ago, one curling club in Iowa says interest in the sport is exploding.
On a recent Wednesday night at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena, dozens of people milled around, waiting for their chance to get on the ice. There were kids and parents, old friends and even a Cub Scout pack. They all came for the same reason: to learn how to curl. After watching Team USA slip, slide and sweep their way onto the Olympic podium in Pyeongchang, they were curious: is it really as easy as it looks?
Instructor Martha Marple led her squad of seven newcomers out onto the ice.
"So basically the object of the game is to slide out, and get your stone down to that house over there," she said, gesturing to the far end of the rink. "Yeah. It’s about 135 feet."
The sheer distance came as a surprise to some.
"It doesn’t seem that long on TV!" a new player said.
It’s already harder than they thought.
Next Marple breaks down the fundamentals of the game. Curling is played with two teams of four, she explained.
"Generally during a game, you have one person throwing, two people sweeping and the skip down at the end calling the game," she said.
Teams take turns sliding a stone down the sheet of ice towards what's called the house, which looks like a bullseye inked into the surface of the ice. The closer a team can land their stone in the center of the house, the more points they can win.
It all starts with the throw. The player leans against a starting block called a hack, then slides out onto the ice and launches the 42 pound stone. Newcomer Tom Birky gave it a go.
"Ok this is how not to do it everybody," he joked to onlookers. Marple guided him through.
"You’re going to push off with your right, and with your left foot you’re going to go into that lunge," she said.
"Ok. Ready? Here I go," he said, hesitating for a moment. "Ok here I go!"
As the stone glides across the rink, sweepers use brooms to brush the ice. The friction melts a thin layer of ice, which keeps the stone moving farther and straighter. Meanwhile the skip waits by the house at the far end of the sheet, yelling directions at the sweepers on how to guide the stone. The yells of seasoned skips echoed through the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena, mixing with the laughter of newcomers as they tried to get their stone into the house.
This has become a regular occurrence at the arena. After attracting a small but loyal slate of players over the last few years, the Cedar Rapids Curling Club is booming. Seven hundred newcomers have come out to learn this year, and the Olympics has a lot to do with it.
Tim Billmeyer has wanted to try curling for years. But now the pressure is on.
"We’ve got four years til the Olympics!" he said, laughing. But why couldn't the next curling legend come from Iowa, he asked. As it happens, there’s at least one person at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena who could have a real chance of landing a spot on Team USA.
Adi Heitzman is an eighth grader at Oak Ridge Middle School and she's been curling for two and a half years. This May, Adi and her teammates are going to Nationals in Salt Lake City to compete against clubs from all over the country.
"It’s amazing to think that hey, someone from Wisconsin, someone from the middle of Iowa can do this kind of stuff," she said. "I have friends who are like, 'are you going to the Olympics'? Not quite yet. I’d like to get school over with first."
The 14 year old said she’s got time. And there’s a lot to do before that could happen. But all of the hard work and sacrifice?
"I feel it’s worth it," Heitzman said.
But Adi and the rest of the club said there’s more to the sport than Olympic gold. Those in the know call it “the spirit of curling." Player Phil Burian said that's what got him hooked.
"The tradition is to sit down and have a beer or some kind of a drink with the team you just played right after the game. That chemistry really makes the game more important," Burian said. "Because no matter how competitive the game is, you know you’re going to be sitting down and talking with these people about what they do and their kids and those kind of things."
And he says curling attracts all kinds of players.
"I curled on a team with, myself, I’m an attorney. And we had a high school student, a chiropractor and an engineer. And we curled against…the other team was a ten year old girl, and three of the wheelchair Paralympians. And it was a very, very competitive game," he said. "When you can have that diverse of physical abilities and experience and they can get on the ice and have a good close game, that’s a special sport."
Burian and his teammates hope they can hang on to the post-Olympics excitement. Or at least teach Iowans that curling really does take some skill.
The club’s spring training league starts April 8th.