Ladies in Curling | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Ladies in Curling 

She glides 12 feet forward, one leg behind her, the other bent to her chest, her waist skimming just inches above the ice. The stone, 42 pounds of black granite pulls away from her hand as if in slow motion.

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"Smooth over ice," reads the banner above the ice at the Lake Forest College recreation center. It's the slogan for Glayva, the Scottish liqueur sponsoring the ninth World Ladies' Curling Championship, and a pun on the festivities. On March 22, the first day of competition, about 1,000 spectators shiver in the 30-degree temperature of the ice rink, not a large crowd as world events go, but curling is not a major spectator sport in the United States.

There are 40 competitors from ten countries -- Scotland, Finland, Norway, Germany, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Canada, and the United States -- most of them women in their twenties, a few younger, a few older. With the red and blue and yellow uniforms of the curlers, and with the ritual bagpipers -- women in pants, men in skirts -- it's a spectacle, and a bit chaotic. On the ice, five separate ballets unfold. At one end of each of five strips of ice 15 and a half feet wide and 145 feet long, named sheets, a woman lifts a 42-pound black granite stone, swings it back, then forward, and glides 12 feet forward along the ice, one leg stretched behind her, the other bent to her chest, her waist skimming just inches above the sheet. The stone pulls away from her hand as if in slow motion, launched, swooshing, smooth over ice.

But the ballet ends abruptly as two of the woman's teammates race alongside the stone with a one-step glide that makes them look to be riding invisible scooters, and according to the raspy commands of the fourth team member, the skip, or captain, at the other end of the sheet, they sweep furiously, intermittently, hurrying and worrying the stone to its target.

If winter sports seem peculiar, it's because they are conceived out of cabin fever. And depending on how severe or depressing the season of the country, they range from merely peculiar to homicidal to downright suicidal: 124-mile speed skates along frozen Dutch canals; scuba diving under Wisconsin lake ice; hockey in Canada; 210-mile cross-country ski races across Alaskan wilderness; ski jumping in Norway. The climate in Scotland, curling's country of origin, must be more reasonable, because curling is sedate by comparison.

Sedate enough for little old ladies to play. On a Wednesday morning at the Chicago Curling Club in Northbrook, 32 mostly gray-haired ladies pump across the ice sweeping in that characteristic curling stutter step. The curling season runs from October until March, and even if it's technically a winter sport, it's been 40 years since any Chicagoans have played it out of doors.

"The only outdoor curling I ever saw in Canada was when we used to jam-pail it," says Betty Duguid, my guide through the peculiar sport. Betty's still got a trace of a Canadian accent, an "oot" when she says "out," though she's lived in Wilmette for 19 years. "We used to do it in junior high school because we were a little too small for curling stones. We'd get a jam pail that had had raspberry jam in it, fill it with cement, put a hook in it, and throw it like a curling stone."

Under pressure, Betty admits to being 50 years old. She's a former Canadian national champion curler who still competes. This year, her Wilmette Curling Club team took the Illinois state championship, but then lost in the nationals, which is why the United States is being represented by a team from Seattle in the world championship. Betty's team qualified for the U.S. Olympic team trials to be held next month in Saint Paul, but as a Canadian, she cannot participate. Instead she'll coach. She's a tiny woman with short brown hair cut in bangs. She looks like someone's mom. But when she delivers her stone on the curling sheet, she demonstrates a grace and effortlessness not seen in younger athletes. I ask if there's any exertion to it at all.

"I'll get you working up a sweat when you get out on the ice," she answers. It's a threat, a challenge. Her voice echoes through the Chicago club rink. I've spent a few tentative minutes getting accustomed to the Teflon-bottomed shoe that will let me skate down the sheet (the other shoe has a rubber bottom for traction), and she's teaching me to deliver the stone. With the rubber-soled shoe in the back, which resembles a track runner's starting block, I am to slide the stone forward a few inches, step back with the left, Teflon-coated foot while dead-arming the stone backward with my right arm, then wing everything forward at once. The broom will be under my left arm, angling out to the ice for balance, and when I've slid a few yards, I'm to let go of the stone.

Betty runs me through a dozen dry runs without the stone to get the feel of the ice. The stone is an impressive piece of polished granite about 14 inches in diameter with a handle on top and a concave "running edge" on the bottom. At $700 a pair, one stone is worth more than my living room couch. With that in mind, on my first real delivery, I forget to let go of the stone, and it pulls me down the sheet on my face, like a fat man with his fingers stuck in a bowling ball. On my second delivery, I throw it with the force of a bowler's strike and watch the stone sail past the target, or "house," and slam into the berm at the far end of the sheet.

Sweeping I've done in the kitchen, so I need no warm-up, but as Betty delivers, I have to hump to stay ahead of the stone, my heart beating like a rabbit's and my right thigh cramping into a knot the size of a hockey puck. The back-and-forth motion clears away debris and, some say, melts just enough ice to make it keener. The more you sweep, the faster and farther the stone travels. Curling brooms used to be made of cornstalks grown specially in Mexico, but they dirtied up the ice, so they've given way to horsehair brushes that look as if they could be used to clean a fireplace hearth. The old brooms were prettier, but "if you get a little piece like that under the running edge of a stone," says Betty, holding up a microscopic piece of straw, "it will stop the stone or veer it in another direction."

The curling sheet is 145 feet long from the hack on one end to the "button," the center of the house, on the other. The ice is "pebbled," not smooth, and that makes the stone "curl" or hook ever so slightly. With different grips and different deliveries, the curler can alter the amount and direction of the curl. There are four curlers per team, and teams alternate delivery; each curler throws twice per "end," then they travel to the other end of the sheet and deliver their stones in the opposite direction. There are ten ends per game, though you can quit after eight if you're hopelessly behind. The game rules are like those of bocce. The stone closest to the button scores a point, and so do any other stones in the house that are closer than the opposing team's stones.

As in position pool, curlers try to place their shots, knock out (or take out) their opponent's stones from the house, and block their own stones to keep the other team from taking them out. The skip stands in the house as her team delivers, reads the ice the way a golfer reads a green before a putt, and marks with her broom where the curlers should place their stones. To be a good skip, Betty tells me, requires years of hard play.

Betty grew up in Manitoba, Canada, started curling when she was ten years old, and competed while in junior high school. She began competing in earnest in 1960, and in 1967 played on the Canadian national championship team. She and her husband Gerry ran a public curling facility with 24 sheets in Winnipeg, then 19 years ago, came to Wilmette to run a facility there. It went out of business, and they moved to the Exmoor Country Club, where Gerry still works. Betty is now assistant lakefront manager for the Wilmette Park District, competes out of the Wilmette Curling Club, and teaches at several clubs in the area.

The Duguids are a curling dynasty. "I was just about born in a curling club," says Gerry. "My dad ran one in Winnipeg. He was the ice maker. My mom had the concession booth." Gerry has gray hair and a ruddy complexion, and there's a seriousness to his face. He runs the only curling pro shop in the area and sells the area's only curling equipment, teaches curling clinics around the country, and makes the ice for clubs and special events, including the ice for the championship at Lake Forest College, which took him five days.

Gerry's brother Donny is a curling announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. And Betty is still well known in Canadian curling circles. When one Canadian reporter found out she was running the event's hospitality suite, he said, "Not the Betty Duguid?" "My girls call me a legend," she jokes of her teammates. But she's taught most of the best curlers in Illinois.

Surprisingly, there are eight curling clubs in Illinois, seven of them in Chicago suburbs. Their names don't always jibe with geography: the Chicago Curling Club is in Northbrook; Skokie Curling Club is in Glencoe; North Shore Curling Club is far from the shore in Glenview; Oak Park Curling Club straddles the border between Elmwood Park and River Forest; Exmoor is in Highland Park; Indian Hill is in Winnetka; and Waltham is downstate in Triumph, Illinois. Among them they have close to 1,000 members.

The first organized curling in Chicago took place on the south side in Jackson Park, where a club met between 1855 and 1900. Downstate Waltham was founded in 1894 by Scottish immigrants. Men at Indian Hill Country Club started curling in 1937 on the club's skating pond because they needed a winter sport, but felt they were "too old for hockey and not graceful enough for figure skating," according to a history written by one Fred Duncombe. Skokie, Exmoor, and Glenview started up in the next two years, tried to salvage equipment left over from the 19th-century Jackson Park club, then found they had to order new stones directly from Scotland -- at a cost of $35 a pair.

Sweeping in those days served the much more basic purpose of keeping snow off the ice. "No curling schedules could be maintained because of the vagaries of the weather," Charles Sprowl wrote in a newsletter from the Skokie Curling Club, "but whenever the weather was right, the curlers were always on hand, and on many occasions matches were played off at two or three in the morning." Tea Long, a bustling octogenarian who started curling in 1948, remembers that Exmoor and Indian Hill put tents over their outdoor curling ice, but "everybody hated to come to Glenview because the wind blew and there were twigs on the ice. They'd call you at dinner and say 'Come! There's ice!' People would come along and see us curling and say, 'We may be crazy, but we're not stupid.'"

Chicago Curling Club installed the first indoor curling sheets in 1948. Within ten years the rest of the clubs followed suit, and curling ceased to be a real winter sport.

On March 28 the last day of the tournament, after a 45-game round-robin and six tiebreaker and semifinal games, Canada and Germany faced off for the gold medal. Canada had lost to Switzerland in the round-robin, but squeaked past them 5-4 in the semifinals.

The championship game was a distinct contrast to the rest of the tournament. Where there had been the chaos of five simultaneous games punctuated by the frequent shouts of the skips and the diverse constituencies in the audience, now everything focused on one game, and a tense quiet hung over the ice. When the third end was completed, the Canadians were winning 9-0. After eight, with the score 14-2, the Germans conceded.

It was no surprise victory. Canada has won the event five times in nine years. In Canada, curling is a major sport. There are about 20,000 curlers and 130 clubs in the United States, most of them in states bordering Canada, according to Frank Rhyme of the North American Curling News. "Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota are the three largest states in terms of curlers," he says. "Illinois is probably fourth."

Canada has countless curlers. While U.S. curling takes place in private clubs, in Canada it's a sport of the masses. "There are almost as many curlers as hockey players in Canada," says Betty Duguid. "It's that popular. Every little town has a curling rink." The excitement that this sedate sport generates among Canadians is astounding; the Canadian press attended the world championship in force, and after every end, they would race to the pressroom to phone in reports of their team's progress, reading dispatches in cadences that sounded more appropriate to horse races. One Canadian radio reporter told me "I'd rather watch curling on TV than baseball." And since the 1988 winter Olympics will be held in Canada, curling will debut as an Olympic sport.

Betty Duguid won't be competing, but she'll be coaching her Illinois team in the Olympic trials. Maybe we'll see her girls on TV competing in Calgary. And who knows? If next winter's weather is miserable enough to make us fight back, those of us too old to play hockey and not graceful enough to figure skate may take up the game.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow.

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