Milwaukee area curlers find camaraderie on ice
"League night" in Milwaukee doesn't only mean bowling. Just like the 45-pound stones eased onto bulls eyes on ice, the recreational team sport of curling is quietly gaining momentum ... and it's about to pick up dramatically.
As the 2010 Winter Olympics approach and bring renewed attention to the famously northern sport (on both sides of the Atlantic), greater Milwaukee's curling clubs offer young and old alike a chance to compete in a game that's easy to learn but hard to perfect.
To that end, the Wauwatosa Curling Club, founded in 1921, invited me to drop in on a recent Thursday night to learn the ropes with its president, Rick Lemke.
The club, now 250 members strong, has called Hart Park home since 1925, and moved into the facility's Muellner Building in 1941. This club might technically be late to the game of curling, which was invented in Scotland in 1541 and is popular throughout the "low countries" and into Canada, but its 85-year local history is immediately obvious.
When I arrive at 5:30 p.m., the seniors' league is already in full swing. Technically, it's designed for members older than 50, but tonight several curlers in their 80s are playing with plenty of vim and vigor. The league is mixed, with men and women taking turns as sweepers and throwers. The team captain presides as the skip, calling the shots on the far side of the curling "sheet."
From the heated viewing area, the sport looks, well, easy. Even the seniors don't seem to be breaking a sweat, and while they play seriously, they joke and smile with their opponents. All strategy aside, the game looks like a combination of bocce, shuffleboard and bowling, mixed with what looks like floor scrubbing. I'm watching these octogenarians slide across the ice, while listening to Lemke explain the rules, and I think, "I can do this."
When the senior league wraps up, they head downstairs for "broomstacking," a tradition in which teams sit at a large, circular table and enjoy drinks and conversation with their opponents. This league has a catered dinner, too, and several members bring bottles of brandy and other liquor that they sip from as they socialize about the preceding match.
"Both teams shake hands and say, 'Good curling,'" says Lemke. "It's almost mandatory that you go downstairs and sit with the team you played."
When I walk out onto the ice, I notice that it's cold, and perhaps I should've heeded the advice to wear a fleece. I'm sporting a long-sleeve T-shirt, sweatpants and tennis shoes, but I'm still chilly. The ice is slippery, but it has a little bit of texture. At only a few points do I feel in jeopardy of falling over.
Says Lemke, "Our ice isn't as slippery as normal ice is, because before we play, we'll scrape it to get it flat, then we'll take a watering can with an end nozzle so the ice gets like an orange peel on it.
"The stones actually go farther on that ice than they would on flat ice because there's less friction," he adds.
Lemke shows me the proper technique for throwing the stone, or rock, a granite disk that's required to weigh between 38 and 44 pounds. Yellow or red, the rock has a handle (to control spin), and a smooth, smaller base. Lemke says that each stone is mined from the same granite in Scotland; "they're expensive, nobody brings their own."
Lemke owns curling shoes, but I, of course, do not. Instead, I apply a "slider," to my left shoe and take my position in the "hack," which looks somewhat like a starting block for sprinters.
It takes me at least a dozen attempts to release the rock without looking like a total clod. At first, I lean back too far. Then I jut out the wrong leg. After that, I tip forward on my hand too much and either deliver the stone way too far and fast, or barely at all.
Eventually, though, I get a feel of the right pressure, more or less, and release the stone near the "hog line" with the right amount of gusto -- and Lemke starts sweeping.
Sweeping, I'm told, makes the rock go farther or travel straighter. It can be used to add distance to a teammate's stone -- or, in the targets, or "houses," to encourage an opponent's rock to go too far. The curling broom, which looks a little like a Swiffer, slightly melts the pebbled ice in front of the rock, and encourages it to keep moving. Until I see my rock travel several yards beyond where it should, due to Lemke's vigorous sweeping, I'm suspicious that this maneuver works. After I do some of my own sweeping, I'm sold.
Sweeping is surprisingly tiring, but running next to the ice as the skip yells, "sweep," I actually see it working. The rock continues to glide farther than inertia says it should, and it clearly takes practice to learn when to start and when to stop the broom action. I just keep sweeping until they tell me to stop.
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Wezl | Jan. 21, 2010 at 2:01 p.m. (report)
Fun sport. Great people. I highly recommend trying it. Clubs are located in Wauwatosa, Racine, Mequon, and Delafield.
I agree Alba. I think it would be great if you could play without joining a league. I'd be fine w/ having to pay to use the equipment, but I personally don't have the money to join a league for a year. Ha. I feel like I've heard that a lot...that everyone liked watching the last Olympics because of the girls.
Curling is a great sport and a fun way to enjoy the long Wisconsin winters. Milwaukee Curling Club, located in Mequon, is also having open houses in conjunction with the Winter Olympics. Check out MilwaukeeCurlingClub.com for more information.
It's a fun sport and they spend as much time drinking beer afterward as they do on the ice. But I wish they simply allowed outsiders to come in a pay some games instead of having to join their league. It's kind of like a bowling alley never having open lane nights.
Went to one of their open houses a couple of years ago - lots of fun, tiring, and 2 days later, I was pretty sore. I know people that are part of this club and they LOVE it. Also, during the last winter games, there were some ladies on the women's team that were pretty hot. Made for good watching.
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