This is the big week for curling at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Gold medal games are set for Friday and Saturday. In Canada, every town has a curling rink. Not so in sunny Southern California. But curling clubs are starting to sweep into the Southland.
Gray granite stones thunder down the ice, twirling like lazy merry-go-rounds. A couple dozen casually dressed people carry red, blue and gray brooms. They look more like colorful sponge mops. The curlers travel in pairs, hovering over the swirling stones, “sweeping” like crazy.
This is curling at Westminster Ice, which just formed Orange County’s first curling club.
"I would characterize it as – and a lot of pure curlers don’t like to – but as shuffleboard on ice," says Richard Ramirez, who helped create the new curling league in Westminster. "There’s a lot of finesse to it. You don’t know what the ice is going to do. And it’s a team sport."
Ramirez is an ice hockey referee from Orange who took up curling about three years ago.
"I wanted to try something different. You know, being at the ice rink and getting yelled at all the time is one thing," says Ramirez with a laugh. "But I thought it was just really cool. I got hooked on it four years ago watching it at 5 o’clock in the morning, you know, because that’s when I was getting up and going to work and watching the Olympic teams then, and just kind of fell in love with it."
But Ramirez had to drive to Escondido to find a place to curl. So he pushed to bring the sport closer to his home.
When the Anaheim Ducks organization took over the management of and refurbished the rink in Westminster, Ramirez found an opportunity to bring a curling club to Orange County. The rink manager let him give it a shot.
"All right guys, let’s hit the button here," Ramirez shouts on the ice during a recent curling pick-up game. "We’ve got to get one right here. Let’s go, let’s go with a nice in-turn. See what that does."
In curling, you slide the stone – the thing that looks like a big teapot – as close as you can to the middle of the target, just like in darts. You can block your opponent’s stone – or knock it away. Sweepers use brooms to scrub the ice in front of the stone. That heats up and polishes the ice – and makes the stone go further and straighter.
Janet English of Lake Forest started curling in January. She watched it on TV during the Olympics, too.
"And I’d always kind of laughed at it. I thought it was kind of a wimpy sport, but I thought how fun it would be to try it. I know, I know!" English laughs. "It’s like the wimpiest Olympic sport! And I hate to say that, but it’s so much fun!"
English says it’s a lot harder – and more physical – than it looks.
"Sometimes you land flat on your stomach. I think that the 'full extension' is when you land flat on your stomach toward the goal," English says jokingly as she laughs.
English says curling’s easy to do badly, but really hard to do well.
"They call it chess on ice," says fellow newbie curler James Haupt of Orange. "So there’s a lot of strategy involved, which we’re just beginning to learn. Right now, we’re just trying to stand up and not hurt ourselves."
Haupt has only played in a couple of curling sessions so far, but he already has a strategy.
"I like to crush the rocks. I like to throw hard and take ‘em all out. Because I don’t have that much touch yet." Haupt lets out a little laugh. "But I think once I start playing a little more, I’ll get the touch down and then I’ll be able to put it, you know, stop it where I want to. But right now, I don’t know how far it’s going to go, but I can get a pretty good line. So right now, I play the take-out game!"
The U.S. Curling Association says membership is growing fastest in California and the west. The number of sanctioned clubs in the west has doubled in the last four years. There are about a dozen clubs, including the Hollywood Curling Club in Panorama City and the new Orange County Curling Club in Westminster.
And the curlers expect their sport to sweep in even more fans after the Olympics.
Note: The local curling clubs host regular "learn to curl" clinics, where all gear is provided. Check their Web sites for more information.