Back in the day of corn brooms, astronomer and alien scientist Josef Allen Hynek (a scientist who studies aliens, not the other way around) developed a system of measuring the intensity and intimacy of encounters with extra terrestrials, which was popularized in the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Those aliens probably knew nothing of curling, but had Hynek been equally fascinated with the ice sport the same way many of us are after the Olympics, he might have classified the levels in the following order:
• Curling Encounter of the First Kind: Knowing what curling is
• Curling Encounter of the Second Kind: Knowing rules of curling
• Curling Encounter of the Third Kind: Playing curling on some kind of video game or Flash game
• Curling Encounter of the Fourth Kind: Watching a curling game on TV
• Curling Encounter of the Fifth Kind: Watching a curling game in person
• Curling Encounter of the Sixth Kind: Actually curling
• Curling Encounter of the Seventh Kind: Attending a national curling tournament
(If there's an eighth kind, it's probably getting thrown out of a curling tournament.)
Attending a tournament has to be the most intense of the experiences, because in the case of the U.S. Curling Nationals at Wings Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it's not just watching a curling match. It's watching five at the same time. And you thought it was hard to keep your attention span intact on the Internet.
The sounds of rocks colliding, throwers sliding out of the hack, skips loudly expressing their opinion of the ferocity of the sweeping, and the clanging of cowbells in the stands can really cause one to look from sheet to sheet. I'm trying to think of a parallel. I'm failing.
On Tuesday afternoon, ten teams from all over the country (but mostly from Wisconsin and Minnesota) began promptly at 2:30 p.m. as signaled by the loudspeaker blaring the famous bagpipe song, "Scotland the Brave." They announced the teams individually, the fans clapped and cowbelled, and then there was this sight:
This was almost bone-chilling. When I've curled, I can usually make it a little past the first hogline, but these gentlemen can slide themselves practically to the other house. If they were inanimate they would make excellent center guards. So instead of going of walking from one side of the sheet to the other like a normal biped, many of these curling gurus slid in a single file line down the sheet. Perhaps a bagpipe rendition of "March of the Valkyries" would have been appropriate.
Most fans who became adorers of the sport this year probably know about Team Shuster, the Minnesotans who went a disappointing 2-7 in Vancouver. They were scheduled to play in Kalamazoo, but after their 26-year-old vice Jason Smith "retired" from the sport, coupled with what could only be fatigue, they bowed out of the tournament. But that didn't mean there were some world class teams to be seen.
For example, there's Pete Fenson. How soon have we forgotten that in 2006, his team won the bronze in Torino? His team is present in the tournament, but he was playing catch-up. Todd Birr, who took third at worlds in 2007, was behind in the standings as well. The draw I attended saw the two teams tied for first, Team Hames and Team Stevens, facing one another in what would be the lowest scoring game of the draw, 5-2, conceded near the end of the tenth when Stevens ran out of stones.
One match was a 10-3 blowout, but the other three all came down to the final shot. Bryan Wight's team (which had a couple Ohioans, so you know they're good people) had no wins but a chance to upset Fenson's team after jumping out to a 4-0 lead. Despite owning the hammer in the final end, Wight's final shot (not pictured, but it was slightly similar to the setup in the above photo from the Farbelow-Morton game) could not hit and roll to prevent the steal of two points, and Fenson won 7-6. It was like watching the placekicker try to avert a loss with a 50-yard field goal, only the anticipation from hack to house lasts much longer than even what it "feels" like when the football is spinning toward the goalposts.
A couple minutes later, on another sheet, Blake Morton executed a high pressure hit-it-you-win-miss-it-you-lose takeout to win 8-5. Soon after that, Team Brown and Team Birr were headed to an extra end.
As Craig Brown threw his final shot (pictured above), he really had nowhere to hide as Birr simply negated his shot with the hammer for the 5-4 victory. There are those who believe the NFL overtime rules are unfair because the team that wins the coin toss has an unfair advantage. Try telling that to curlers, who have a 74 percent of winning with the final stone in the 11th.
The whole draw was a whirlwind of hurrying hard followed by a sudden pandemic of bated breath (which was slightly visible in the cold arena) in anticipation of game-deciding shots. Then, two hours later, it was over. For a couple hours until the next draw.
This is what people in the less-evolved encounters don't necessarily see. They may witness a few curling shots and a little sweeping, then exclaim, "Hell, I could do that," much like how they may see a person take one free throw or cross country ski for a half mile. Each team delivered and swept effectively 80 of the 720 stones they are scheduled to throw, not counting playoffs, in the span of a week. And this was an easy day for the men; they only had one game. Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday had two games in store for everybody, and the marathon continues through Thursday, when tiebreakers and page playoffs begin.
It's sheer madness to try and contemplate that much curling all at once. Which is why the couple hundred fans in attendance on a Tuesday afternoon were closer to curling than except perhaps those athletes actually participating in the event.
The linescores for U.S. Curling Nationals are updated live for both the women and men. It's quite a sophisticated website for what you think a curling website would offer; they even show the skips' career head-to-head matchups and stream live audio coverage of the featured game (that sheet in the middle).
They also plan to provide live video feeds of the gold medal games on Saturday. But despite trips to Italy and Canada on the line in these championship matches … phooey, that's just one game at a time, something anyone can do.
Photos by Matt SussmanPowered by Sidelines