BELFAST, Maine — When people think of college sports, football, ice hockey and basketball might come to mind — but almost certainly not the unusual sport of curling.
Douglas Coffin of Stockton Springs is hoping to change that, as a new college curling program he is running out of the Belfast Curling Club is beginning to attract more interest and garner more awards.
“These kids have worked so hard, and they’ve done so well,” Coffin said last week. “My dream would be to next year have a more robust college curling league.”
On winter Sundays this year, students from Bowdoin, Bates and Unity colleges drove miles to Maine’s only curling club to grab brooms and learn the techniques of curling 42-pound granite stones toward targets.
All that dedication and practice paid off, Coffin said, as the season culminated in several successful bonspiels, or curling tournaments.
Two weekends ago, he traveled to Boston to watch as the Bowdoin and Unity college teams curled in the New England Regionals against other teams, most of which have a longer curling tradition. Unity won two games in its division, ultimately taking home the bronze, and Bowdoin College curling athletes won three games, winning the silver.
Coffin said it’s a pleasure to watch students, some of whom have never been athletic before, succeed at curling.
“They’ve learned a lot,” he said.
Tim Godaire, a Unity College senior from Chaplin, Conn., said Monday that he has been curling for two years and helped to start his college club.
“It’s a blast,” he said. “It’s a great way to spend your Maine winter, first of all, and there’s always room for improvement. We play against guys who have been curling for 35, 40 years, and still don’t consider themselves good. And it’s all friendly competition. You start the game with a handshake.”
The sport is old, having originated some 500 years ago in Scotland and exported to North America by early settlers. The first curling club on the continent was established in Montreal in 1807, and the sport remains incredibly popular in Canada. It took hold along the northern border of the United States and the first American club was formed in Michigan in 1832.
Curling is played on an ice “sheet” painted with concentric circle targets at each end, or “house.” Two four-member teams, or “rinks,” compete against each other by curling eight of the heavy stones toward the target. Team members use special brooms to control the speed and directions of the stones by sweeping in front of them as they glide down the ice.
Each team member curls two stones per match, with the object of the sport being to leave as many stones within the circle as possible.
It has some similarities to the French game of boules, according to Coffin.
The Belfast Curling Club was founded in 1956 by a doctor who had come to Belfast from Washington County, where he had curled in St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
Coffin said that after curling became an official winter Olympic sport in 1998, it has grown in popularity. The club in Belfast now has 150 members, some of whom come from as far away as Mount Desert Island, Orono and Readfield.
“They really love it, and it stitches the weeks of winter together really nicely,” he said.
Curling is a noncontact lifetime sport that is also gender-neutral, and the college teams are co-ed.
Coffin began the college curling program two years ago after Bowdoin College student Carl Spielvogel called to ask if there was any league in Maine. There wasn’t, but Coffin figured that could change.
“I said to Carl, ‘Yes, I’ll do this,’” Coffin said.
Curling aficionados worked to get the word out around central Maine, and students such as Godaire started to sign up. Last year, Spielvogel decided he wanted his Bowdoin club team to participate in the college nationals, which were held in Chicago. The team won in its division, taking home a national title, which was galvanizing for the young sport in Maine.
Bowdoin College alumni were “very excited” about the win, which Coffin described as happening “out of the blue.”
At the beginning of March, 10 teams came from around New England and New York state to compete in the Maine league’s first ever “Crash Spiel.”
“It was 23 hours of nearly nonstop curling,” Godaire said.
Coffin said the students alternated sleeping, schoolwork and curling.
“It was enlivening to the Maine schools to see other kids who came up here to curl,” he said. “They were better than all the Maine kids.”
But with more time, practice and experience, that can change.
He’s hoping that next winter, the University of Maine and other schools will field a curling team so the league can grow to eight colleges within an hour and a half of Belfast.
“It’s not simple,” he said of curling. “You need to plan. You need all this stuff — but if you have all of that in place, it’s sublime.”