Of all the sports set to grace television screens as part of the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, only one of them has the distinction of being known as “chess on ice.” That sport involves a sheet of ice, a polished stone weighing about 40 pounds, and brooms.
It’s also called “The Roaring Game” because of the sound made by the stones as they move down the ice. But you probably you know it simply as “curling.”
“Curling is often referred to as ‘chess on ice’ because there is a lot of strategy involved, but unlike chess, things don’t always go as you plan in curling,” curler Flannery Allison said.
The sport began as a form of documented recreation in 16th century Scotland. Today, it has a notable local following with participants from West County, St. Charles County and even small towns in Illinois gathering at the Creve Coeur Ice Arena each week.The St. Louis Curling Club [SLCC] began in 2010 when founder Nancy Rogers gathered about 10 members at an arena in Fairview Heights, Illinois. Its current roster consists of about 70 competing curlers. Its new home, off Olde Cabin Road in Creve Coeur, is the result of one woman’s determination.
“… around 2012, the Fairview Heights ice rink there closed,” explained current president Becca Walters. “It was built on top of a mine and started to collapse.”
Walters, who curled in Seattle for about eight years before relocating to St. Louis, added that she began looking for a St. Louis home for the curling club “before I even moved here, and Creve Coeur said we could use their ice to curl.” But between the rink collapse and the relocation, a 14-month hiatus occurred.
According to curler Joe VanArtsdalen, the club managed to officially reform at its new Creve Coeur location around 2014, thus missing the rush of interest from the Vancouver and Sochi Winter Olympics. Not so this year.
When curlers take to the ice in PyeongChang for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games [Feb. 9-25], the club will be open and offering lessons.
“We were around in 2014, but this is our first Olympic season as an official club,” VanArtsdalen said. “So this is a really fun time for people to really get into curling.”
Curling debuted as a medal sport in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. As of 2017, about 1.5 million people curl in 33 different countries, according to the St. Louis Curling Club.
The game involves players using strength and dexterity to slide stones on a sheet of ice toward a target area. The team’s captain, also known as the skip, offers advice on where and how to aim the stone. Teams take turns sliding the stones, which can range in weight from 38 to 44 pounds, down the ice and toward a circular target known as the house. Points are scored for the stones resting closest to the center of the house. The objective is to score the highest number of points.
Each time a curler throws the stone, two sweepers accompany it and sweep the ice as the stone moves down the sheet, thus altering factors like direction, friction and speed without directly touching the stone.
“It’s more difficult than you think,” curler Irene Hasegawa said. “It surprises people, but you can also learn how to play just by watching the game.”
According to curler Jim Winslade, the sport is based highly on elements of accuracy, precision and communication among team members. The sport also has an element of unpredictability that keeps players on their toes.
Unlike other sports, curling doesn’t have set positions, meaning players have to be proficient at sweeping the ice and throwing stones.
“One of the most common misconceptions [comes when] people ask ‘what position you play?’ They ask, ‘Are you a sweeper?’ or ‘Do you throw stones?’ Everyone throws two stones and gets to sweep, and the skip’s job is incredibly important,” VanArtsdalen said.
According to Walters, the club already has seen a spike in membership since relocating to the Creve Coeur location.
“When I started with the club around three and a half years ago, they only had about 15 members and only had one set of stones that someone had given us a loan to buy, and we were renting another set from Wisconsin,” Walters said. “We now have two sets of children stones and five sets of adult ones, so we can have five games going at once.”Due to local interest, the club is holding multiple classes and events in the coming weeks for those who would like to test their knack for curling. The Learn to Curl events will take place at the Creve Coeur Ice Arena through March with additional events possible in April depending on popularity. The goal is to teach the basics of the game, including stone delivery, sweeping, strategy and scoring. Participants also will take part in a short game.
“We are expecting a big turnout,” Steve Young, SLCC vice president, said. “We already have people signed up for sessions going into early March.”
There are over 15,000 curlers in over 135 clubs in the United States. SLCC’s members span a variety of ages, backgrounds and skill levels. According to Winslade, a lot of members have between zero to three years of experience.
“We do lose members from time to time, but we’ve also attracted a lot of new people that have just jumped in with both feet and have never curled before and find that they like it, and away they go,” Winslade said.
Allison added, “As far as St. Louis goes, there’s a pretty wide variety of curlers. Especially in our leagues, a lot of people have never curled before. For most people, it’s ‘I saw this on the Olympics and I want to try it.’ That is 90 percent of people.”
With continued growth, the club is hoping to be able to secure its own dedicated ice. The Creve Coeur Ice Arena, which is usually used for events like hockey, is not regulated for curling due to elements like its slightly bowl-shaped structure. The club also has to go out prior to practices and leagues to make their own marks on the ice, something that would not be necessary with dedicated curling ice.
“Our biggest challenge is working with the ruts created by hockey skates and figure skates,” Young said. “Zambonis can sometimes do the job, but any ridges and valleys in the ice are still enough to make the stone curl in funny ways.”
According to Allison, the hardest part of the club’s current and ongoing search for an ice facility is finding a structure that meets regulation measurements, including a length of at least 190 feet.
“It’s very specific and that’s the issue,” Allison said. “Warehouses tend to be very big, but that’s not really an issue for our club outside of the financial side. Bigger buildings are more expensive, but we’re still actively searching for a building.”
So far, the club has raised just shy of $50,000 for the dedicated ice fund thanks to trivia nights, individual donations and bonspiels, the curling version of a tournament.
On Jan. 27-28, the club hosted the 2nd Annual Winter Classic Bonspiel at Waltham Curling Club in Triumph, Illinois. Seven teams from St. Louis joined curlers from Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, Ohio and Texas for the event. An additional $5,000 was fundraised toward the dedicated ice fund goal of $165,000.
The St. Louis Curling Club also participates in an annual spring ‘friendly’ bonspiel with other local teams. Proceeds from that event also go toward the dedicated fund. The 2018 Waltham Friendly takes place from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday, March 17 at the Waltham Curling Club.
The club hopes to be in a new facility sometime in 2018. Goals for the proposed facility include hosting weekend curling, a youth program, wheelchair curling, adult leagues, open practice times and corporate rentals.
“We would love a facility with men’s and women’s locker rooms and also have a kitchen for bonspiels so people don’t have to just bring crockpots,” Young said. “We’d love to also have a liquor license because it’s a tradition that the winning team buys the losing team their first round. It’s a very social sport, and because some people come from pretty far, we’d love to have the means to continue that tradition.”
The new facility also would continue to expand the club’s new high school league, which started in spring 2017 and includes Cor Jesu Academy, Nerinx Hall High and Visitation Academy.
“Having that larger facility would also allow us to increase our membership opportunities, and would also allow us to curl more than once a week,” Young said. “Saturday is a difficult time for a lot of people to come curl.”
Individuals planning to attend the organization’s Learn to Curl events should dress warmly and wear rubber-soled shoes. All other equipment will be provided by the St. Louis Curling Club.
“We don’t expect any experience,” Allison said. “We supply all of the equipment, and it’s basically a two-hour rundown of the sport. They go from knowing nothing to playing a game at the end.
“I’d love to see even more players, and older individuals, continue to get into curling as well,” Winslade said. “You don’t need to be 25 and a superb athlete to enjoy curling.”
Reservations for the Learn to Curl events can be booked on the St. Louis Curling Club’s Facebook page and its website [stlouiscurlingclub.org]. The cost is $25 per person; reservations are not required but strongly recommended.
“We always tell people to try it, and to come out and curl with us,” Allison said. “We don’t turn people away.”