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Kneeling in the hack while holding a stone and a broom certainly looks easy on TV, but when you're actually the one on the sheet, curling seems like a sport not meant to be played by humans.

The Triangle Curling Club explains one of the more obscure—and inviting—Olympic sports 

Rocks on ice

Click for larger image • Curtis White of the Triangle Curling Club practices earlier this month at The Factory in Wake Forest.

Photo by D.L. Anderson

Click for larger image • Curtis White of the Triangle Curling Club practices earlier this month at The Factory in Wake Forest.

Kneeling in the hack while holding a stone and a broom certainly looks easy on TV, but when you're actually the one on the sheet (and someone has kindly explained to you what those words mean), curling seems like a sport not meant to be played by humans.

In fact, curling was meant to be played by Scots, which explained why my frigid fingers and jeans held me back from delivering the rock.

The Scottish roots of the game aren't nearly as evident as those of Lance Wright, however, a member of the Triangle Curling Club who sports a kilt on the ice to drum up excitement for events. Wright doesn't curl in his kilt, for a more obvious reason than the kneeling, sliding and stretching required.

"I don't curl in a kilt because it's bloody cold," he said, refusing to reveal whether the kilt was all that was protecting him from the ice as he tutored a trio of undergraduates on Duke's rowing team.

The Triangle Curling Club, an organization based at The Factory of Wake Forest's Polar Ice House, brings one of the more obscure sports at the Winter Games to North Carolina through a series of open-house sessions intended to introduce casual spectators to the sport, which could be described as a lawn darts-shuffleboard hybrid played on ice.

The sport, created sometime in the 15th century, is ancient compared to such popular team sports as basketball and hockey, and it also requires a certain skill not utilized in more familiar pastimes: the strength and poise to accurately sling a granite rock weighing about the same as a 5-year-old child down an ice rink in hopes it will land on a bull's-eye.

And those rocks aren't made of just any granite. Olympic curling stones all come from quarries in Scotland and weight between 38 and 44 pounds.

And it's not just any ice, either. The surface of the ice would have even the best of skaters on the ground, with a pebbled surface that, compared to freshly smoothed ice, is essentially equivalent to the difference between pavement and cobblestone. The ice pebbles allow the curling stone to change direction, or curl, giving the game its name.

For a throw, or delivery, curlers crouch in the hack, a kind of starting block from which they push off. They release the stone before reaching what's known as the hog line, and from there, the rock slides and curls its way down the sheet.

Competitors alter the curl of the rocks by sweeping in front of the moving rock, allowing the stone to keep its speed longer. The purpose of the sweeping technique, dating from when curling was done on frozen ponds, used to be just to remove rocks from the path of the stone, but it has evolved into an art. The faster the rock moves, the straighter it goes, so skilled sweepers can maneuver around guard stones and into scoring positions with a few powerful strokes from their brooms.

Click for larger image • Jeff Hedgepeth watches a stone slide into the scoring range. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Targets resembling bull's-eyes on each end of the playing surface, known as a sheet—which is anywhere from 146 to 150 feet long and 14.5 to 16.5 feet wide—are the goals for curlers. The object of the game is to land as many curling stones as possible within the target. While you're putting rocks in the "house," though, your opponent can knock them off, meaning you come away with nothing.

For some like me, the open house is a chance to try out the sport and to come away saying it's a lot harder than it looks, but for at least three visitors—the Duke rowers—at a recent session, curling seems to be a life goal. "We had been telling one of our assistant coaches about our life goals," Tori Arendt said, when the conversation turned to winter sports and, eventually, curling.

"We were like 'We've always wanted to try that,' and he said it's hard to find curling places because it's a very weird sport," Arendt said. "We're rowers, so obviously we're used to weird sports."

The three said they will be back at least once more, though, for a "Learn to Curl" event, an experience that is more detail-intensive, according to Kathy Jackson, a TCC member.

"Tonight all we wanted to do was let people touch a rock and throw a rock and sweep a rock," Jackson said. "Because for a lot of people, that's all they really want to do. That's enough for them."

Jackson said the "Learn to Curl" sessions are for those who have attended an open house and want more sweeping, delivering and yelling.

For now, the Duke crew women said they'll relish their initial curling experience.

"We told our coach we would have a surprise for him tomorrow," Arendt said. "We took a bunch of pictures and now we're going to bring them back tomorrow. We're going to show him we're going for our goals to be curlers."

And while they said they'll likely return to the rink to learn more about curling, the three rowers came to a familiar conclusion about the sport.

"You look at the Olympics and you're like, 'Oh whatever. That takes nothing. Anyone can do it.' " Burke said. "It looks so easy, but it's a lot harder."

Ditto, Kathy.

For information about open houses and joining the Triangle Curling Club, visit www.trianglecurling.com. The men and women's semifinals of the Olympic curling competition will take place Thursday, Feb. 25. The women's finals will occur Friday, and the men's will take place Saturday. Visit www.vancouver2010.com/olympic-curling-schedule-results.

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