Olympic Curling Guide

It’s the Most! Wonderful! Time… of the year.

Christmas? Bah! Valentine’s Day? Nope. Live Punxsutawney updates? Umm, maybe, but that’s not what this specific post is about.

It’s Curling-on-TV season!

You might know this, incorrectly, as the “Winter Olympics.” But there’s really only one reason to watch the Winter Olympics.

Okay, maybe two. Matt Hamilton’s porn-stache and the Norwegian team’s pants. But both of those will only be seen during curling matches.

As many of you long-time readers (ie people who know me in real life) know, I took up curling four years ago this month. You can read about it here, but here’s the tl;dr: it had always fascinated me and while watching the last Olympics, I decided to google if there was any place I could curl within, say, a hundred miles. Turned out that, yes, they curled about five miles from my house. Who knew?

So I did my very first Learn-to-Curl in February of 2014. Since then, I’ve become a league coordinator and drawmaster (“schedule dude”) for a number of bonspiels (curling tournaments). I’ve curled six different places in California (again, who knew?) and have traveled to Seattle and Vegas to compete. I’ve won two different bonspiels (not the A-Bracket, but if I get my picture taken with a trophy, it’s a fucking win).

I’ve met and competed against former Olympians. I even beat one! Once. Out of six attempts. I’m now 1-5 against Edie Loudon (she lives nearby, so I see her often). And maybe 0-4 against all other professional curlers.

The trick to beating an Olympic curler? Beat the other people on their team. It also helps if you catch her on the last day of a double-bonspiel, meaning she’s curled about eight times over the last 48 hours. I know it doesn’t look like it on TV, but curling is tiring.

I even met Olympic gold-medalist Kaitlyn Lawes and she let me touch her gold medal. And no, that’s not a pervy euphemism. She literally let me touch her literal gold medal. Look:

Gold Medal.jpg

I think I was even more excited by that picture than if she had let me “touch her gold medal.”

Professional curlers are very nice. Kaitlyn even said I could take a picture with just the gold medal. I figured she should probably be in the picture, because a) she’s cute, and b) she earned it. But man, if that were my gold medal, I wouldn’t let somebody touch it, much less take a picture with it around their neck. You try to take that thing from me, you better be an Olympic biathlete.

And now it’s another Olympic year. The requisite “Hey, check out this quirky sport” stories are running in media outlets everywhere. We love it at our club. A year ago, we couldn’t beg enough to get a mention in local media. In the past six weeks, we’re getting contacts from newspapers, radio, and local TV (the NBC affiliate, naturally). Our Learn-to-Curl program, which often has only one or two customers, is booked solid. We’ve put 100 people through a LTC in the past two months, and the Olympics hadn’t even started yet. We even added a second class most weeks and people are willing to come out at 7:45 Sunday morning to try it.

So yay, curling on TV.

Of course, I can usually find it any time I want. ESPN3 shows most of the upper-tier Canadian curling. American curling is a little harder to find, but that’s okay, because it’s not as good. I know it’s ironic that Canadian curling is easier to find in the U.S. than American curling, but there’s a reason the Canadians dominate the sport. It makes it a little hard on my Olympic rooting interests, but the Americans usually make that easy by being in last place.

But there’s still something special about watching in the Olympics. It’s the one time NBC doesn’t fuck up the flow of the game with asinine editing. During their normal broadcasts, “Curling Night in America,” they jam a three-hour game into about ninety minutes. So they’ll finish one end (like an inning in baseball), take a commercial break, and when they come back, there’s already six stones in play in the next end. Or they skipped an entire end. Imagine watching the World Series and, after the first inning, they jumped ahead to the sixth and said “Oh, by the way, the score is now seven to five.” That’s how the average curling match goes on NBC. Also, since it’s edited to fit into two hours, a lot of the drama is gone. Are they going to tie it up and force an extra end? Oh, it’s 7:50, so I guess not.

I’m not saying NBC doesn’t fuck up coverage in the Olympics, but at least it’s fucked up in the normal way. They show two ends, then go away for twenty minutes of luge, then come back. That’s just Olympics 101. At least they have an app now.

This year, they’ve added a new round of curling called mixed doubles. In it, each team only has two players instead of the usual four. Each end only has five stones, instead of eight. So the games take about half as long.

I’m undecided on mixed doubles. It’s not real curling. It’s a made-for-TV sport. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.

I’ve tried mixed double before. Well, maybe not mixed doubles, because I was curling with another dude, but “open” doubles. It’s a weird beast. In normal curling, you have your skip making a target with his broom at the other end of the sheet. Then you have two other team members to sweep your rock. In mixed doubles, you only have one other teammate, so one of those vital pieces are gone. You’re either aiming at nothing or you have to sweep your own rock.

When it was first designed, the assumption was that people would still want a target, so they would sweep their own rock. It’s not that difficult. Most mediocre curlers can jump up and follow their rock. A lot of us jump up and follow our rock, anyway.

The first time I tried mixed doubles, the person holding the broom said I was coming out in the right direction, but something was happening to the rock when I released it. Turns out I was subconsciously clipping my release in order to jump up and sweep. Add to that the fact that I’m losing about fifty percent of my sweeping power because one of my shoes has a Teflon bottom, which isn’t great for leverage. I also have a tendency to start sliding faster than my rock, so pretty soon I’m sweeping backward.

I guess I wasn’t alone, because the next time I saw professionals playing it, their strategies had changed, too. Now many of them opt to have their teammate sweep their rock instead of providing the target. Depends on the curler and depends on the shot.

So that’s a little “inside curling” you can wow your friends with. Watch for when their teammate is right next to them and when they’re at the other end. If the former, they care more about weight than location. If it’s the latter, they’re probably trying to draw through a smaller port.

Mixed doubles works better for TV because there are more rocks in play. An end in team curling can last twenty minutes and resolve nothing. I’ve seen a number of matches where one team throws a guard, the other team hits that guard out, and the first team throws another guard, for six shots in a row. That can get tedious. Then with the final shot, there’s one rock in the house (bulls-eye), and the skip hits it out to score zero because that’s a sound strategy. In mixed doubles, you almost never see a blank end (no score). Usually there’s six or eight rocks in the house.

In addition to those “This Crazy Sport” articles we see this part of the quadrennial, I’ve seen a fair number this year that lead with “It’s not as easy as it looks.” Um, yes and no. Is it a difficult sport to learn? No. You can do it in an hour or so. But at the Olympic level? Yeah, that’s tough. They’re good. Again, compare it to baseball. Is swinging a bat and making contact with a ball difficult? No. Most five-year olds can do it. But I wouldn’t like my chances standing in against Justin Verlander.

Curling’s the same way. The professionals play at an entirely different level. They see angles that don’t exist at the amateur level. Sometimes I’ll wonder why they are calling a certain shot. Then they’ll ricochet off three stones, just as they planned it, and I realize “Oh, they called that shot because they can hit that shot. I would’ve knocked my opponent’s stones in if I tried that.”

That whole “knowing what they’re throwing,” is one of the great reasons to watch curling on TV – you can hear them discuss their strategy and sometimes the two of them will debate what to throw, giving the viewer insight we don’t get in other sports. The catcher and pitcher use secret signs to debate their strategy. We don’t get to listen in on an NFL huddle. But in curling, they’ll say where they want to hit a certain rock and what they think it’ll do if they hit it there.

So check it out. Listen to the skips.

And trust me, it’s just as easy as it looks. Come on out to your local club and we’ll show you just how “easy” it is 😉

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