winter sports

More Crazy Curling

It’s time for the update nobody was asking for.

Seriously, I’ve seen the stats. I could tag “wiping my ass” and have five likes by the morning. But curling sends all the boys to the (other) yard.

But I don’t care, because someone (most likely me), somewhere (most likely here) wants to know how my curling has gone since my last post. Did I play more bonspiels in the second half of 2018? Have I played anything other than lead? Did I ever make it past the 2-2 bugaboo that seems to plague me at every turn?

Well, I’m glad I asked myself!

I might have some new readers since my last update, so here’s the skinny: I started curling (yes, the one with the sweeping and the grunting and the yelling) back in the 2014 Olympics. Or rather, while the 2014 Olympics were going on. Not IN the Olympics, mind you. Now I’m approaching the five-year mark, which technically means I should be getting much better. And there are some games where I totally am better. And then there are games where I seem to have forgotten which direction the stone is supposed to go or how to hold a broom or, really, what the fuck this “ice” thing is that we’re standing on. I’ve never been much of a golfer, but I hear that is response of most golfers: I hit that shot yesterday, why am I in the bushes today? And for the next three months?

In my last post, I wrote about the dream team of new-ish curlers that we put together to take the crown at the vaunted “Five Years of Experience or Less” tournament and how we failed miserably in that regard. We won our first two games and lost our next two games, which has more or less been the hill I tend to die on in most bonspiels. Two wins, two losses, and almost always in that precise order.

Well since then, I’ve curled in two more bonspiels. And the good news is that in one of them I didn’t go 2-2! Huzzah!

I went 0-4!

Just kidding. We actually won four games that weekend! Huzzah! And then I went to another bonspiel and went 2-2 again. In the same fucking order I always do. Except I was kinda, sorta proud of that record this time around. Was it against better competition? No. Not at all. The competition was atrocious. So why was I so tickled at this particular 2-2?

Before I get to that, let’s focus on the 4-1 record. Because that one came first chronologically and I’m a history teacher.

Most bonspiels are run in a standard “bracket” system a la March Madness. Some start with pool play. Others do not. Regardless of whether you played in a pool or bracket, though, you reach a point where the loser goes home. And ideally, that loser-go-home game comes after the teams have been sorted into the haves and the have-nots. Sometimes that can be a little brutal, as you win your first two games and are rewarded with a do-or-die game against some behemoth team with Olympians. Meanwhile those numbnuts who you beat 15-2 in Game One are now playing on Sunday morning, twenty hours after you were eliminated, in the semifinal of the bracket where all the teams started out 0-2.

My home club starts with pool play which then goes into three brackets. We send the top sixteen teams, which ends up being all the first-place teams and most of the-second place teams, into the A Bracket. This seeding has often been the undoing of my team. As I mentioned, we often win our first two games and then lose our third. That usually puts us in second place and then we enter the A Bracket as something like the 15 or 16 seed. And if you follow March Madness, you know what usually happens to the 15 and 16 seeds. Even if you don’t follow March Madness, I bet you can probably figure out what happens when the 16th-best team plays the best team. It’s time to drink!

So when we won our first two games at last September’s bonspiel, we got nervous. The third team we were playing was 1-1, but if they beat us, we’d both be 2-1 and they’d get first place based on head-to-head record. Most of the tiebreakers were established before the third game started, so going into it, we knew that we were either going to be the fifth seed with a win, or the fourteenth seed with a loss. The pressure was on.

We won the third game. Don’t ask me how. And by “don’t ask me how,” I don’t mean that we had no fucking business beating that team. I just don’t remember how we beat them. It was back in September and I’ve played a lot of games since then. Nothing really sticks out about that game. The games we lose? Yeah, I remember every fucking mistake and the number of centimeters each shot missed by. But wins don’t stick in my craw very long.

Wins are forgettable and the losses stick with you forever. Why the fuck do I play this game?

But I do know that, since we finally got past the double-digit seed shenanigans, we also finally won our first game in the A Bracket. Again, though, it was a win, so I got nothing to tell you about that game. All I know is we were 4-0, we had survived until Sunday, and we were in the quarterfinals of the A Bracket. The Elite Eight! And who cares if our potential Final Four match-up happened to have a guy who came in second place at the Canadian Men’s Championships last year and was prominently featured in this John Oliver clip. The one in the hat. Super nice, has come to our club a number of times. Would totally destroy my team. But that doesn’t matter, because the Final Four is the Final Four, baby.

Except you have to make it past the Elite Eight first, and astute readers will note that I already said we went 4-1. So maybe I should stop looking ahead at a match that would never happen.

What happened in our fifth match? Well, since it was a loss, I can tell you in excruciating detail. Again, why the hell do I subject myself to this mental torture?

In Game Five, we made two key mistakes. Our strategy was solid. We hit our shots. We curled well. We swept well. We took advantage of the other team’s mistakes. From a curling standpoint, we did pretty much everything you would need to do to win the game.

So where was our problem? Walking.

The first faux pas came when we had a two-point lead. They had one point in the house, and we were taking the final shot. There was a little bit of a port between guards where we could get to their rock, so we decided to go for it. Worst case scenario, we figured we’d give up one and still have the final shot in the next end. Well, our shot didn’t make it through the port. It clipped the guard. No biggie, the shooter and the guard should have rolled out and everything in the house stays where it is.

Except it didn’t roll out. The other sweeper on my team happened to have his foot there, so the rock cushioned up against his inseam. And since his foot was in the process of walking forward, the rock shifted its momentum, too. It spilled into the house.

The rules say that the opposing team gets to decide what happens to a stone that is “burned” (ie touched). Usually this means putting the stone back or removing it from play. But you can let it stay where it ended up after the other team touched it. The unwritten rule is that you do your best to determine what the rock would have done if it wasn’t touched.

I can say, without equivocation, that there is absolutely no way this particular rock was going to end up in the house. It was leaving the guard area on a route that was parallel to the house. The other team said it would’ve hit one of the other guard rocks, which is true. There were two rocks just past my teammate’s foot, which is why his foot was in the evacuation path in the first place. But there were two stones there that the stone in question would have transferred its momentum to, and the front one would’ve trapped it there. There’s no way it would have taken the right turn that it took unless it came up against an object already moving in that direction. Such as a foot.

Think of marbles. Or billiard balls. When a ball strikes another ball, it stops. It might roll a little bit one way, but it’s lost most of its momentum by then. Especially if there’s another ball there after it rolls a bit.

Anyone who knows anything about how curling rocks behave knew that the stone would not have ended up in the house. Hell, had the opposing skip actually been watching, he would have admitted that, but I don’t think he saw what happened. I think he all of a sudden looked up and saw two of his rocks in the house and just said he’d take the two points.

And the rules say it’s up to the other team and, shocker, they take the second point. I can’t be certain I wouldn’t do the same thing in his position.

But no biggie. It’s a tie game and we’ve been outplaying them the whole game. As long as we don’t make any other stupid walking mistakes.

The next snafu was mine. The good news is that my feet didn’t kick any stones into play. The bad news is that gravity can be a bitch.

I’ve fallen plenty of times while curling. Most curlers do at some point or another. When one of the primary actions of the sport requires walking on ice, it’s bound to happen. But most of the falls are harmless. It’s only bad if you fall over backwards and hit your head. That’s why we encourage people to always lean forward. That way the worst you can do is fall on your knees.

But oh man, I never realized how gnarly falling forward could be. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I was too far behind the rock. I knew I was too far behind the rock. I could see the trajectory of the rock, which is something I really shouldn’t have been able to see if I had been in the proper position. That’s why there’s so much screaming in curling, because the people who are sweeping can’t tell where the rock is going. But because I was out of position, I knew it was starting to curl earlier than it was supposed to, and I knew that my skip was going to start yelling soon. So when the shouting came, I was already overextended, my front foot far away from my back foot. When I lifted my broom, I looked like Superman shouting “Up, up, and away.”

Hey, did you know Superman leaves the ground when he goes horizontal?

I flailed out like a motherfucker. But I didn’t burn the rock! Huzzah for five years of curling instinct, telling me to sacrifice my body instead of touching the rock. I did some Matrix shit in mid-air to ensure that neither my broom nor my hand nor my arm would make contact with the rock.

Unfortunately, that meant that I was going to hit hard on my shoulder and my hip.

Hey, did you know you can get a concussion from hitting your shoulder too hard? It turns out you can. And I can’t guarantee I had a concussion after that, but I’m pretty sure the NFL wouldn’t have let me back out on the field. Luckily there are no field sobriety tests on the curling ice.

That’s how they check for concussions, right? Follow my finger, touch your nose, say the alphabet backward. They’re just trying to catch you saying, “Dude, I couldn’t even do that with a horizontal brain.”

Anyway, the important part of my fall turned out to be neither my ability to avoid the rock nor the state of my brain inside my skull. No, the reason I remember this fall so much is what I saw the rock do from wonderful new vantage point on the floor.

You see, the usual purpose of sweeping a curling rock is to keep it straight. The rock wants to curl. And sometimes we want it to curl. But there are other times we want to keep it straight. And the important sweeper for this endeavor is the sweeper on the inside of the curve. If the rock is curling from right to left, then it’s the sweeper on the left that matters. He needs to seep across the rock, trying to convince the rock to follow the path of the broom, not the path it’s currently on.

The rock I fell on (not fell ON, mind you, but fell DURING) was traveling from right to left. I was on the left. Then I was no longer on the left. The other sweeper, the one whose foot had fucked up a half-hour earlier, was on the right. When he realized that his teammate and friend had crashed down in a concussive force and was sprawled out on the ice behind him, he did what any decent human being would do. He completely ignored me and concentrated on getting into position to sweep the rock.

Oh sorry, did I say decent human being? I meant good curler. He did what any good curler would do. If I sacrificed my health for the greater good, he better not waste my effort.

Unfortunately, to get into the best position to sweep, he had to stop his own momentum, step over the rock, then step forward again to get into the position I had failed to obtain, so that he could sweep from left to right. By the time my teammate was in position to sweep, our rock’s trajectory had gone from hitting the target stone at the 11 o’clock position to hitting it at the 1 o’clock position. By the time my teammate got a proper sweep in, a point in time where I should have already had ten sweeps in had I been able to stay on my feet, it was desperately hanging on to the three o’clock position. And before I knew it, there was no way it was making contact with the target. It was going to crash a meaningless stone sitting two feet to the left. I mean, yay, we held the other team to scoring one instead of the two they might have gotten. But had I swept it the whole way, they weren’t scoring any.

Want to know the final score? We lost by two. How many walking mistakes did we have? Two. So even assuming nothing else changes, the two points they got off those mistakes were the two points they won by. But in reality, it wouldn’t have been that close. Had we been up by three after my friend’s foot incident, we would’ve played the game differently. Had I swept the second rock the whole way, then we have the lead going into the final end instead of down by one.

Two walking mistakes. Two points. Ugh.

To be fair, we would’ve gotten destroyed by the professional Canadian in the semifinal. The team that beat us got destroyed. But then they went on to win the third-place game pretty handily. I’m pretty sure we could have, too. And third place sounds a hell of a lot better than “lost in the quarterfinals.”

But don’t mind me, I’ll just be sitting here watching all the 0-3 teams playing in the “C Bracket Semifinal” after my 4-1 team was eliminated.

Dammit. At the end of it all, I can’t say that 4-1 feels all that much different from 2-2. Or even from 1-4. Because I’ve had one of those bonspiels, too. We always say that the first goal is to stay alive until Sunday. But when you’re eliminated in your first Sunday game, you say, “Dammit, why did I have to drag my ass here an extra day for this?”

Oh well, maybe my next time would go better.

Which leads me, a month later, to the beautiful resort town of McCall, Idaho for a 16-team bonspiel on the shores of a mountain lake. I mean, we technically weren’t curling on the lake. We were in an ice rink right across from the lake.

1007181023They do have an outdoor bonspiel on a frozen lake in Idaho, but that’s in January, not October. The outdoor bosnpiel, called the Sawtooth Outdoor Bonspiel because it’s in the Sawtooth Mountains and because it seems like it would be a real SOB, continually runs on and off my bucket list. It usually sounds like a good idea in the middle of summer, but when my California-born-and-raised ass bundles up at fifty-five degrees, I’m not sure if athletic activity outdoors at 7:00 in the morning of a day that will top out at ten degrees sounds like a great idea.

Don’t worry, if I ever do it, I will live blog it. Assuming my fingers don’t fall off. But in the meantime, you have to muddle through my indoor Idaho curling.

McCall marked the furthest I’ve ever traveled to curl. Every other place I’ve curled has been in the Pacific Time Zone. I really need to get to one of those Wisconsin bonspiels someday. I’ve heard many of them have all-you-can-drink beer included. How the hell have I not set up permanent residency there yet?

Speaking of time zones, not only is McCall far away in miles, but I’m pretty sure it’s still 1983 there. They have a video rental store.

And an arcade.

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And deer might randomly walk through your front yard.

1006181740bAnd you can smoke in bars???

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But the town itself was a beautifully quaint mountain town. Check it out:

And the curling itself… well, I’ve already spoiled my record. Two wins, followed by two losses. But in my spoiling, I also teased that I am much prouder of this 2-2 record than most. Because this time I was skipping.

What is skipping? The skip is the person who holds the broom, does all the screaming, and then takes the final two shots when it’s all on the line. If you watch “Curling Night in America” on NBC, you might be fooled into thinking the skips are the only people on the team who take shots, because that program is pre-recorded and edited for content. As a result, the poor leads and seconds, the roles I usually fill, are rarely shown delivering a stone. Boo. Hiss.

The team I cobbled together for this trip were based primarily on who could take a day off work. The full team didn’t come together until the weekend prior. And without one of the usual skips in our club on the team, I seized the role from the members’ cold, dead hands.

Okay, maybe they weren’t dead, just cold. And really, that was only before they put their gloves on. My point is that I said I was fine with skipping and they all said they were fine with me skipping, so I skipped.

Skipping’s a different animal. I’ve done it before. Sometimes our skip is gone for a league game and the rest of us rock-paper-scissors for it. Other times I’ve been hurt and couldn’t sweep. Of course, on those times, I usually take the first two shots, then just do the holdy-broomy, shouty thing, which is only one part of skipping.

The thing that really separates most skips, and the reason we continually see John Shuster or Nina Roth when we’re watching the American teams at the Olympics, is because they’re taking the last shots. Oftentimes, these are the toughest shots. But even if they aren’t tough, they are the shots that matter. If I’m a little bit short when I take a shot as the second or vice, I shrug my shoulders and say, “it wasn’t horrible, and I’ve put it in a good position for the people after me to do something with.” But when I’m skip, there’s nobody after me. And if I’m supposed to get it to the button (the middle of the “target”), but I end up on the outer ring, then the other team just scored some points.

Mike McEwen made one of the best shots I’ve ever seen, but if he had been a vice skip, then the skip on the other team would’ve just put another rock into the middle of the house, negating most of his good work. When a vice makes a good shot, it’s like that defensive lineman who celebrates tackling the running back for a loss on second down, only to see the QB convert the third down thirty seconds later.

So while Matt Hamilton has a much better porn ‘stache, John Shuster’s the guy who hit the double takeout to score five in the gold medal game. And in most bonspiels, I’m like Matt Hamilton, but with less cool facial hair. In McCall, I was John Shuster.

Which doesn’t mean I won. Trust me, if you followed curling before last February, John Shuster’s name was hardly equated with winner.

So how’d I do?

I mean, how’d we do?

(But really, how’d I do?)

We dominated the first game. Wasn’t even close. The other team had at least one new curler, and the others had never played with their skip before. I mean, we had a new curler and most of my team hadn’t played with me as skip before. But the other team had been onsite, and drinking, since morning and were really sloshed, whereas we had just flown to Boise then driven for two hours to get there. So I guess that’s all it takes.

Game two was a little bit closer, but it still didn’t raise much of a sweat. I think after three ends, we were up 3-2. They had scored one twice, we had scored three points in the second end. Then I don’t think they scored again till the final end. If I were to guess at the final score, I’d assume 7-3 or 8-3. Pretty comfortable, and we were feeling good about ourselves. With only 16 teams in the tournament, we were already into the semifinals of A Bracket. And if we lost the next game, we’d drop down to B Bracket. So either way, we’re through to Sunday. Goal #1: Accomplished.

I’m not sure what Goal #2 might have been, but it wouldn’t end up mattering.

Game three was bad. They had a Canadian. I think we were down 5-0 before we even scored. Then we got it back to 5-4, as in the words of Robin Williams’s golf bit, “just ta give ya hope.” Then they scored in the next two ends, and we managed to put up a respectful 7-5 loss. Afterward, the Canadian complemented us, said he told his team not to rest easy when they went up big, because we were really close on a lot of our shots. If only we had an experienced skip who knew what the hell he was doing.

The Canadian didn’t say that last part. Canadians are way too polite. And, to his credit, maybe he wasn’t even thinking it. But I was.

That whole game, I felt like we were chasing. We could never get to playing the game I wanted us to play, the style of play from the first few games. I knew at the time that this was happening, but I couldn’t figure out how to stop playing from behind. Even on the ends that we scored, we were still scoring on their terms.

Oh well. On to B Bracket. Still two wins away from taking home a trophy. Or maybe just getting our picture taken with a trophy. Wait a second. Did they have trophies? Well, I’ll never know.

That night was the banquet, which took place in one of the smoking bars. Then there was a pub crawl, which is not easy to do in a town with one major road and only two or three bars. The team we were playing the next morning kept trying to get us drunk. We kept trying to get them drunk.

Hey wait, I finally figured out why I still play this infernal game!

Our final game was a back and forth affair. I still felt like I was playing the other team’s game a lot, but we were at least able to keep the score close. I figured out early on that this team didn’t like hits and takeouts. They always wanted to draw. They could put the rock the proper distance into the house almost every time, although not always on the right line. My team? Exact opposite. We could throw the correct line each time, but our weights were nothing to be relied upon. And I was the worst of all. My weight was off all weekend. But man, give me something to hit, and I’m in my happy spot.

So if I can always hit their stone, I just need to make sure there’s nothing behind their stone, right? So dammit, why was I faced with their stone on the button, right in front of two of my stones every damn time I’m heading down to take the final shot?

But we persevered. We entered the final end tied, and we had the hammer (final shot), which is totally the position you want to be in.

At least we thought it was the final end.

You see, at most bonspiels, and in most leagues I’ve experienced, they usually ring a bell to signify you’re getting close to the end of the game. It’s usually about 20-30 minutes before the time limit, and the rule is (usually) that you can finish the end you’re on and play one more. At McCall, there was no bell, just instructions to not start any new end after the one hour, fifty minute mark, so that we could be off the ice by two hours. Most ends take between 15-20 minutes, so I felt like ten minutes was cutting it a bit close, but whatever.

And in my defense, I was saying that before we lost our last game.

We started the “final” end with about 25 minutes to go until we had to be off ice, meaning about 15 minutes until we couldn’t start another end. So I played the whole thing as if this was it. We put a stone near the button with one of our first shots. They missed it and then it became a series of guard, guard, guard. The other team kept pouring stones into the house, but they couldn’t get to the one we had buried. All I needed to do was score one, and that one wasn’t going anywhere. The opposing skip went down and delivered his first stone, and then it was my turn. As I’m walking down the sheet, I glanced up at the clock. It was 10:45 AM.

Wait, what the fuck? How have we delivered the first thirteen stones in only ten minutes? And how can I waste five minutes for the final three stones? If this was an NFL game, I could fake a hamstring injury or something. Can I throw the flag for an instant replay?

Okay, don’t freak out.

“This is the final end, right?” I asked my sweepers when I got into the hack.

They looked back at me like the metaphorical deer in the headlights. They had just been having a similar conversation. And none of us really liked the answer we were coming up with.

I delivered the stone, and their skip practically runs down to deliver his next stone. He isn’t even trying to go after my rock. He’s… he’s guarding me from putting another one in there? What the fuck kind of wicked sorcery is this?

So I stall. I discuss my shot with my vice, not only to waste time, but because all of a sudden, for the first time this end, I’m like “Shit, how do we score two here?” Because I’ve spent the last four rocks trying to close that shit off.

But I can’t just run out the clock. There are unwritten rules, and if I was going to break one of these unwritten rules, I needed to be less obvious. I needed all of my teammates to take an extra thirty seconds for each of their shots instead of me taking an extra five.

At 10:47 AM, I let go of my final rock. Twenty-something seconds later, it came to a rest. I take off my glove in order to shake some hands, but the other team’s hearing nothing of it. Their lead is in the hack and ready to deliver.

Could I have still won? Or tied? Sure. But we were shellshocked. Just like after AJ Piersynski cheated to get on base in the 2005 ALCS. Could the Angels have gotten the next guy out? Sure. But it’s pretty fucking hard to get your head back in the fucking game when you realize that Doug Eddings is a fucking dipshit umpire that doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground, much less the difference between a catch and a drop.

Sorry. Angels fan here. Not still bitter thirteen years later or anything.

But we were in a similar situation. We thought the game was won.Each person on my team felt they had thrown their last stone. We were focused on playing in the finals. Preparing our acceptance speech. And now all of a sudden we had to play one more end, without the hammer, against a team that could out-draw us. The good news is they still had to make their final shot. The bad news is they did.

So there you have it. My last six months or so of “competitive” curling. And even though I haven’t won any big ones, I’m still pretty happy with how things have gone. My competitive team went farther than it’s ever gone, and then I skipped a team to a respectable finish. Two bonspiels in a row where my team ended up in fourth-or-fifth place range, whether I’m calling the shots or sweeping the shots. Not too shabby. Maybe I’ve finally figured this shit out.

Check back in three months, when I can’t hit the broadside of a barn.