February 8

In Maine, curlers go for the cold

An Olympic sport that anyone can play, curling draws devotees from far and wide for ‘a great escape.’

With the Winter Olympics about to start, curling will return to the world spotlight. We check in with local curlers attThe Belfast Curling Club, the only curling club in Maine.

By Glenn Jordan gjordan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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Erin Herbig of Belfast releases a stone during a curling tournament at the Belfast Curling Club on Friday, January 17, 2014.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Erica Sprague of Lincolnville releases a curling stone while competing at the Belfast Curling Club. Players say the game is more like chess than shuffleboard and bowling. “We bristle and stiffen at the words ‘shuffleboard’ and ‘bowling,’ ” said Douglas Coffin, a former club president.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Erin Herbig of Belfast slides through an area known as the house as she throws a curling stone during a competition at the Belfast Curling Club in Belfast on Friday, January 17, 2014.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Ann Kirkpatrick of Belmont throws a curling stone under the direction of Erica Sprague, with hand out in foreground, during a curling competition at the Belfast Curling Club in Belfast on Friday, January 17, 2014.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Women sweep in front of a curling stone to help it gain more distance during a curling competition at the Belfast Curling Club in Belfast on Friday, January 17, 2014.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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Tilly Atkins of Bath, left and Erica Sprague of Lincolnville sweep in front of a stone during a curling tournament at the Belfast Curling Club on Friday, January 17, 2014. The purpose of sweeping is to make the curling stone go farther. "What they do is they melt the tops of the little bumps of ice enough so that it reduces the friction of the stone on the ice. So two curlers who are sweeping hard can bring a stone about 15 feet farther and they can make it curl less," says Douglas Coffin, who maintains the ice at the curling club.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

  


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