When it comes to winter sports, skiing, snowboarding and ice-skating typically win the popularity contest here in New Jersey. But curling? It’s a sport that many people saw during the 2022 Winter Olympics, but not one that most of us have tried.
To those who have watched curling, it can seem like an approachable sport. It doesn’t require a lot of new, fancy equipment—or the ability to balance on skates or skis. Simply put, it looks easy enough—at least to try out.
“It usually seems accessible to people when they watch the Olympics,” says my instructor Katie Kelly, vice president of the Jersey Pinelands Curling Club. “They think, I could do that!” Curling has been around since the 16th century in Scotland and has been an Olympic sport since 1998.
I start my lesson by learning what exactly curling is. Simply put, two teams of four people strategically slide rocks—either by hand or with disability-friendly sticks—across a sheet of ice into a target, called the house, on the other side. After one player releases a rock, two other teammates run alongside the stone and sweep the ice with brooms in order to move the stone farther along the sheet.
Points are awarded according to where the stones land in the target—but they often don’t stay there for long, since they are at risk of being knocked out. That’s why the strategy-driven sport is often called chess on ice.
Etiquette and hospitality reign supreme in this social sport, which, above all, values camaraderie. It can also be played in mixed doubles, making it a great date or group activity.
While the twenty-some people in my class vary in age, gender and ability, all are enthusiastic and eager to take a shot at this peculiar pastime. We are given plastic grippers to put on the soles of our shoes and guided onto the rink, where club members are already out on the ice warming up.
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I watch in awe as Mary Alice Cleve, a club member with eight years of experience, effortlessly pushes off and lunges just above the ground, gracefully sliding her 42-pound stone across the sheet.
Cleve sports a jacket covered in curling-club pins from all over the world, which she’s collected at bonspiels, or tournaments. She whizzes over and shows me her pins, fondly recalling her travels, during which she’s met teams from as far away as Ukraine and Kenya.
While New Jersey isn’t the most popular place in America to curl—that would be Minnesota and Wisconsin, followed by Massachusetts and New York—it is growing in popularity here. Our premier club, the Plainfield Curling Club, has been open since 1963 and boasts about 230 members, including Dean Gemmell, the new CEO of USA Curling and a Short Hills resident. Jersey Pinelands Curling Club, open since 2014, has around 60 members. This year, Garden State curling will be in the spotlight as we host the National Curling Championship for the first time ever, at East Rutherford’s American Dream mall January 29-February 4.
At Pennsauken Skate Zone, my classmates and I gather into a huddle, and our instructors inform us of the game plan. The first half of the class will consist of basic skills training, as well as lessons in strategy, rules and etiquette. Then we’ll get to play. “Within 45 minutes, you can learn all the skills you need to play a game—we will get you curling quickly,” says Kelly, adding that the club is a “pretty friendly” one.
As it turns out, curling is not as easy as it seems. However, most of us find ourselves picking it up more quickly than expected, and everyone maintains a sense of camaraderie that keeps us smiling and laughing for two straight hours. What started as a group of strangers begins to feel like a tight-knit team. “At this level, it’s all about fun,” says Amanda Fabian, the club’s president. “You always want to improve yourself, but it’s more so about having a good time.”
When it’s my turn to throw, I feel overwhelmed by all the steps it takes just to get into position. I move at a snail’s pace, putting one foot in front of the other while angling my rock at the 10 o’clock position with one hand and grabbing my stabilizer with the other. Uncomfortably hunched over in a runner’s push-off position, I look ahead at my target. Without thinking too much, I say, “Screw it!” and use my leg strength to push off and throw my rock.
I come crashing down seconds later, which I’m able to laugh off—and my rock makes it across the ice, so I’m impressed with myself. “Take it slow and don’t worry about messing up, because everybody does,” Cleve’s husband, Jeff, an experienced curler, tells me. “Don’t throw your rock with your arm. Release it. It’s a common rookie mistake.”
I get back up and do just that, which makes a night-and-day difference. Feeling more balanced, I lunge forward and slide my stone with confidence. After a few shots, I find my rhythm and also feel pleasantly surprised by the stress relief and serotonin boost I get.
Later, we get into strategy, rules and etiquette, which are far more complicated than the skill-learning portion of the class.
Playing the game makes it obvious that none of us knows what the heck we are doing, but we sure are having fun trying. “At this level, luck has a lot more to do with it,” says Jeff Cleve. “That’s one of the great things about curling—it is a sport you can play and enjoy while you’re learning to do it. You’re all kind of in the same boat.” Some other classmates compare curling to popular recreational sports like pickleball in terms of the (lack of) experience needed to start playing.
I am disappointed when we don’t break into broomstacking, the traditional after-party at competitions that many players call the best part of curling. However, it could be just the right incentive for me to return to the ice.
CURLING TIPS FOR BEGINNERS:
- Etiquette is everything. Greet your opponents with a handshake and wish them “good curling.” Compliment good shots. Shake hands at the end.
- Curling is a social sport, so be ready to meet new people.
- Dress in warm layers, thick socks and clean sneakers. Wear clothes that allow for movement.
- Take position quickly when it’s your turn to throw. Delays are considered distracting and disrespectful.
- Angle your rock at either the 10 or 2 o’clock position. Twist it toward the 12 o’clock position upon release.
- Hold the stabilizer at the top of the rod with your non-dominant hand for optimal balance.
Falyn Stempler is a freelance journalist based in Jersey City who writes about topics including news, culture and food.