BELFAST — If there’s one Olympic game that gives couch potatoes hope, one sport in Sochi that seems within reach for mere mortals, it is curling.
The dream resurfaces every four years: be part of the Olympic movement, march in the opening ceremonies, compete at the highest level of sport . . . without being blessed with extraordinary speed, strength or stamina.
Not that curlers necessarily lack such attributes, but their curious pastime seems more within reach for ordinary athletes, particularly those from cold-weather climates.
Hey, who hasn’t mopped a kitchen floor, or slid across a frozen puddle? How hard could it be?
Answering that question requires a trip up Route 3 to the Belfast Curling Club, the only place in Maine where curling doesn’t involve an iron or plastic rollers. At the recent Pinetree Ladies Bonspiel, teams from New Brunswick, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, upstate New York and even Texas joined locals for a three-day tournament.
“There’s a veneer of relaxation about it,” said Douglas Coffin, a former president of the club, as he watched the action from behind one of four windows overlooking a brightly lit stretch of ice. “But it’s actually quite competitive.”
Curling springs from medieval Scotland, and now flourishes in Canada like nowhere else. Of the roughly 1.5 million curlers worldwide, Coffin said, about 1.3 million are Canadian.
“I think Scotland is second with about 45,000 and I think the United States has about 18,000,” he said. “Bulgaria has about 8,000. It goes on down.”
The club in Belfast claims 228 active members from more than 80 communities across the state. Coffin said more than 200 now participate in league play.
HITTING THE BULL’S-EYE
Coffin stepped through a door into a dramatically different atmosphere. Staccato shouts punctuated the chilled air. Heavy, kettle-shaped stones of polished granite rumbled across a pebbled frozen surface. Twenty-four women, each holding a broom, presided over three 146-foot-long playing surfaces with three colorful concentric rings on each end.
Sweep the line! Hurry! Hard! Go, go, go! Dig, dig, dig! Up! No!
Four-person teams took alternating turns, each player delivering a total of two stones while two teammates with brooms scrubbed furiously in front of the slowly rotating stones to reduce friction if more distance is needed. This is done at the behest of a third teammate, called the skip, who stands behind the 12-foot-wide bull’s-eye (the “house”) and directed the sweeping.
“It’s really more like chess than anything else,” said Coffin, 65, of Stockton Springs. “It is not like shuffleboard. It is not like bowling. It is not either of those. We bristle and stiffen at the words ‘shuffleboard’ and ‘bowling.’ ”
Curling rules aren’t difficult to master. Each team throws eight stones. Only one team can score per end. A team earns one point for each stone that touches any part of the house and stops closer to the center (the “button”) than any opposing stone. Whoever leads after eight ends (10 in the Olympics) wins.
“The first time I played (three years ago), I really liked it,” said Sara Gagne-Holmes, whose husband suggested curling after watching the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. “Then, I fell a lot, and I almost didn’t come back. . . . I spent the first four months with bruises all over my knees because I would drop my knee and hit the ice when I would deliver a stone.”
(Speaking of Vancouver, plug “Norwegian curling pants” into your search engine for images of the silver medalists that would make even a golfer cringe.)
‘A GREAT ESCAPE’
That Gagne-Holmes, who runs a nonprofit legal aid organization, drives 90 minutes to Belfast twice a week from her home in Readfield to curl attests to the sport’s attraction.
There’s the undeniable social component, with etiquette calling for both teams to sit down together (winners buy the first round) after the match, a tradition called “stacking the brooms.”
There’s also the get-away-from-it-all factor.
Walk into this cold, white arena wearing a slider (very slippery) on one foot and a gripper on the other. Spend two hours concentrating on strategy. Sweep as if your mother-in-law is on her way to inspect your kitchen floor. Now, with all your weight on the ball of one foot and your body in an elongated yoga pose, release the handle of a 42-pound stone with a gentle 10-to-12 turn (or 2-to-12, depending on your skip’s signal) after pushing out from the hack (akin to a sprinter’s starting block) and gliding toward the hog line.
“For me, it’s a great escape,” said Gagne-Holmes. “I have a stressful job. I love being able to come here. You have to focus, or you’re not going to play well.”
At the recent bonspiel, Gagne-Holmes was the second on a team skipped by Karen MacDonald, 52, of Stockton Springs.
MacDonald said, “You can have the most stressful, awful week, and going into this little well-lit ice box is like magic. . . . It dispels everything else that’s going on in your life.”
“I call it ‘going into the cloud,’ ” said Jaye Martin, 54, the team’s lead (her stones go first), who also lives in Stockton Springs.
“And there’s way more physical exertion than anybody thinks,” MacDonald said. “Sweeping is like doing serious interval training.”
SPORT HAS GROWN UP
The women mentioned a recent Wall Street Journal article that included a photo of two curlers on the Canadian men’s team (nicknamed the Buff Boys), which is favored to win a gold medal in Sochi. As the men in the photo sweep in front of a stone, sculpted muscles pop from beneath their shortsleeve shirts.
The story quoted a Canadian curler who, in winning the 1972 world championship, “took his final shot with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth as he slid onto the ice.”
Yes, smoking and drinking were part of curling in those days, said Coffin, who joined the club in 1980.
“That’s what people did,” he said. “There was no Internet. There was one movie theater in town, and the curling club. Now, it’s different. It’s smoke-free and it’s more inclusive, but Maine is more inclusive now. The state has come a long way since 1980.”
Even college kids are curling. The weekend after the ladies’ bonspiel, Coffin helped run a tournament involving Bowdoin College, the University of Maine, Colgate, Yale, MIT and Boston University. In recent years, Unity, Bates and Maine Maritime Academy have sent curlers to Belfast.
“It’s non-contact and it makes no difference whether you’re a man or a woman,” Coffin said. “The object goes more slowly than the people, which I think is the only sport in the world where that’s true, except maybe for putting in golf. So there’s a lot of nail-biting and wondering and tension and anxiety.”
And teamwork, Coffin said. Everyone plays a role with every thrown stone.
“There’s the captain that calls the shots, the person who delivers it, and 90 percent of the time it’s the sweepers who make the shot for you,” Coffin said. “So whose shot is it? It’s all four of you.”
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY GAME
After appearing in the Olympics as a demonstration sport, curling officially joined the Winter Games in 1998. Of the 10 U.S. Olympic curlers, nine come from either Wisconsin or Minnesota. (The other is from Chicago.) Nobody who started in Belfast has advanced to the Olympics.
Tilly Atkins, 68, travels to Belfast from Bath to curl. In the recent bonspiel, she was the lead on a team that included Erica Sprague, 36, of Lincolnville, Erin Herbig, 32, of Belfast and Ann Kirkpatrick, 51, of Belmont.
Sprague is an organic-spray technician. Herbig, her cousin, is a state legislator. Kirkpatrick is a school superintendent.
“There’s a huge variety of people,” Atkins said. “It doesn’t matter what your profession is, what your education is, what your income is. When you walk through the curling door, there’s only one thing that matters, and that’s the game.”
Atkins and her husband have curled for seven years. Last month, she played with Herbig for the first time.
Without curling, Atkins said, their paths may never have crossed.
“It is just very satisfying,” she said, “socially, emotionally and physically.”
Sochi is a long way from Belfast, but in this refrigerated ice box, amid the rumble of stones and the chatter of friendly conversation, the spirit of the intertwined rings is alive and well.
“My husband used to say, if you’re old, you can go to the Olympics in two sports: archery and curling,” Atkins said. “We’re not going to the Olympics, but we’re having a heck of a lot of fun.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: