BELFAST, Maine — For a rare instant, it was dead quiet on the ice. A stone gliding slowly across the ice emitting a low, rumbling growl. That bit of calm shattered when the curler sliding along behind that stone realized it was slowing down.
“SWEEEEEEP! YUUUUUUP! HAAAAARD!” the intense college curler screamed at his broom-toting teammates. They brushed the ice frantically, heating up the ice just ahead of the stone and reducing friction.
The curler’s blue stone squeezed through a cluster of tightly packed stones, smashed into an opposing yellow one, knocking it out of the ring of concentric circles. His stone came to a rest near the center, earning a point for his team.
Dozens of college students representing 11 teams from across New England descended on Belfast last weekend to face off in a bonspiel, or curling tournament. It’s an obscure sport across much of the U.S., but draws renewed interest every fourth year when it’s broadcast across the globe as an Olympic event.
Katie Perry, in her third year as a University of Maine curler, said she picked up the sport after seeing a booth at a student activities fair and deciding it was the most “random” thing she could try. She did, and she got hooked.
Her decision prompted a lot of comments from friends and classmates when they learned about her practices.
“Oh, the sport with the rocks and the shouting?” some said. “Do you do the pushing or the brushing?” others asked.
“I love being unusual,” Greg Kritzman, one of Perry’s teammates, said as the two ate breakfast inside the club. “That was really the big draw for me.”
Curling, in theory, is a simple sport. Two teams of four players take turns sliding roughly 42-pound polished granite stones across a 146-foot sheet of ice with the aim of getting their stones closest to the center of a target, called the house. In practice, it’s a complex contest that has almost as much in common with chess as it does shuffleboard and bowling.
“Easy to pick up, hard to master,” Perry said.
Opposing curlers try to knock the other team’s stones out of the house while getting their own into better positions. Sometimes, they purposely leave their stone short of the house as a “guard” to make it more difficult for the opposing team to get their stone where they’d like it. Strategy is key, as leaving a stone unprotected in the middle of the house is a sure way to ensure it will get knocked out by the opposing team and leave it in a better position.
Sweepers carrying brooms follow the stone on its methodical, curving journey to the house, sweeping frantically ahead of it in order to influence the stone’s speed and direction. To ensure consistency, a curling stone can only be made from granite cut from two quarries on the planet — one on a particular Scottish island, the other in Wales.
The skip, the team’s captain, stands in the house, pointing out where their team’s stones should come to a stop and setting an aim point that marks how far the stone should curl. The skip shouts at the sweepers when they need to start or stop using their brooms. Some skips are more vocal than others. Much more.
Belfast is home to Maine’s only dedicated curling facility, so several Maine college teams travel regularly to Belfast for practices. There are other places for curling groups in Maine, but they typically use sections of ice on public skating rinks.
The college curling programs on display in Belfast over the weekend varied dramatically in the size of their programs and their experience levels.
Unity College, a small environmentally focused school of about 700 students based about 30 minutes from Belfast, was only three members strong at this year’s tournament and had to borrow a player from another college to compete. They’re in the midst of a rebuilding year after the club died out four years ago, when its leader graduated.
Doug Cooper, a 20-year-old studying wildlife care and education, decided to start the club up again and is trying to use the popularity of the Olympics to draw fresh interest and more members.
Harvard, Bowdoin College of Brunswick, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Rochester Institute of Technology also joined the bonspiel. Some of the larger clubs were able to send two teams. Some teams had full uniforms, others wore their own mismatched gear ranging from athletic wear to T-shirts and pajama pants.
A team of experienced curlers largely made up of graduate students from Yale University took home top honors in this year’s bonspiel, winning every match they played and edging out a Bowdoin College squad that also entered that match undefeated.
Yale’s program started in 2013 after a grad student from the Midwest decided to start up a club because she missed the sport. Today, the program has about 20 members who compete in tournaments across New England.
Fabian Schrey, a doctoral student from Germany and the club’s president, said more than half the team is made up of international students who have had more exposure to curling in the past. Like other clubs, they’re trying to bolster interest around the Olympic Games.
The Yale team drove six hours Saturday morning to reach Belfast, played three matches, competed again on Sunday, and drove six hours home.
“It’s a big commitment, and we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t love this sport,” Schrey said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.
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