Jay Packard takes a breath and moves from a crouched position to a perfectly executed lunge-slide across the ice, slowly releasing a 40-pound rock toward a bull's-eye target on the other end of the sheet. I watch as he stands effortlessly and the rock glides between my graveyard of stones scattered around the ice and stops inside the target. If only it were as easy as it looks.
Packard, who leads new membership recruitment for the Milwaukee Curling Club, is giving me a brief lesson in curling, that shuffleboard-like Scottish sport that pops up on TV every four years, thanks to the Winter Olympics.
While curling's origins date back to 16th-century Scotland, it wasn't until the sport was added to the Olympic bill at the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, that it began to gain a larger following. That spike in interest comes every four years, Packard says.
"Curling on TV for the Olympics is critical, because people get sucked into the Olympics," he says. "There's nothing else to do in February, and curling is a great TV sport."
That's because games are played by curlers who are not wearing helmets and look like regular people, Packard says. The players wear mics, giving viewers a chance to hear the discussion that goes on during a game.
The Milwaukee Curling Club, which got its start in 1845 and claims to be the oldest in the United States, capitalizes on that surge in interest, offering Learn to Curl classes for beginners. The final class this season will be offered March 15.
The two-hour session includes an introduction to basic curling skills — delivery, sweeping, scoring — and a scrimmage.
"We generally take them from right off the street and in two hours they're curling in little scrimmage," Packard says.
After the session, new curlers are treated to pizza, beer and soda in the clubhouse area. The after-party, Packard notes, is an important part of curling culture.
The club has seen membership grow from about 150 members a couple of years ago to 230 in 2014, Packard says, and more than half of those joined in the last few years as the club moved from its former facility at the Ozaukee Country Club to its current home at the Ozaukee County Fairgrounds.
The club is one of nearly 30 in the state, including four others in the Milwaukee area. And while the Midwest has always been a hotbed for the cold sport, interest is growing across the country, Packard says.
How it works: Teams of four compete against each other on a 150-foot ice sheet, which contains two circular targets, called houses, on each end. The ice is groomed to have a bumpy feel, called pebble. Packard maintains the ice daily to ensure a perfect sliding surface.
"When you slide the rock, it should go down easy. You shouldn't really have to shove it. It should be just a gentle push," he says, adding that makes curling a very accessible sport. "Where someone is never going to be an alpine skier, really anyone can curl."
The club will teach curlers as young as 5, and has some members in their 80s. Packard's parents have been curling for more than 50 years.
During a game, teams start at the same end and each slide eight rocks toward the other house. The object is to slide as many rocks as possible closer to the center of the house, called the button, with a point scored for every rock that is closer than the other team's closest one.
Teams alternate throwing, with each team member throwing two rocks per round, called an end. Two other team members sweep as the rock slides down the sheet, while the final teammate, called the skip, sets the team's strategy from behind the button.
Curling is more balance, flexibility and finesse than strength. Experienced curlers like Packard make that elegant lunge-slide look easy, carefully balancing their weight on their front sliding foot and a broom held upside down in their opposite hand. I look more like a child learning to ice skate, but after a few tries I'm able to sneak a rock into the house.
The next skill is sweeping, which requires a fair amount of physical effort. Packard says a good pair of sweepers can actually move a stone an extra 6 to 10 feet.
Good sportsmanship is key in curling, Packard says, with players ending every game — from recreational to the Olympics — with a handshake and "Good curling."
What you'll need: Serious curlers have special shoes, but Packard says all you really need is a lightweight jacket (the shed's temperature hovers around 40) and comfortable walking shoes.
The curling club provides all of the stones, brooms, and a slider to put over your regular shoes for help with throwing.
How much it will set you back: Learn to Curl sessions cost $25 and include a two-hour lesson and pizza, beer and soda after. Club membership costs $300 for the first year, but is not necessary for a Learn to Curl session.
More information: The Milwaukee Curling Club season runs from October through March. For more information, see milwaukeecurlingclub.com.
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