Olympic bounce: Is curling as easy as it looks for beginners?

There is a spike in curling interest following the Olympics, Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images
There is a spike in curling interest following the Olympics, Picture: ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP/Getty Images
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To the casual Winter Olympics viewer, many of the sports on show appear to require utterly unachievable levels of skill.

But for curling it is rather different. In every Olympic year, thousands of people in Britain sign up for beginner’s lessons after watching the sport on TV and locating their nearest rink.

Great Britain's skipper Eve Muirhead, second right, Anna Sloan, Lauren Gray and Vicki Adams have inspired many to try curling

Great Britain's skipper Eve Muirhead, second right, Anna Sloan, Lauren Gray and Vicki Adams have inspired many to try curling

There has been a huge surge of people enrolling on Try Curling sessions across the country over the past few weeks, with coaches describing “manic” and “crazy” levels of interest.

As well as the heroics of Team GB, the profile of the sport has been boosted by an unlikely celebrity endorsement in the form of Mr T, the US actor who played the impossibly macho BA Baracus in The A Team. He has given it his own hashtag: #CurlingIsCoolFool.

So is curling really as easy as it looks?

The first thing new curlers notice as they step on to the ice is that it is nowhere near as slippery as expected. Ice technicians treat the surface with water before a match, giving it a “pebbled” effect that lends even a pair of trainers a reasonable amount of grip.

Then there are the stones. Weighing about 20kg, the idea of delivering such a weight accurately into the coloured target – known in curling lingo as “the house” – some 45m away is a rather more challenging endeavour than it first appears.

In order to do so, beginners must first master how to launch themselves in a crouching position from the rubber blocks – the “hack” – at the other end of the ice sheet, with the aim of giving the stone just enough propulsion to make it to the other end.

Despite the poise of the professionals, it is surprisingly easy to fall over while attempting this even with the use of a balancing aid, ending up in an undignified heap on the ice as the stone judders embarrassingly to a halt.

Then there is the need to twist the stone as it is released, a process which gives the sport its name. Release a stone without curling it and rather than gliding elegantly over the ice, it will fizzle out harmlessly. With all of these points to remember, the need to aim is often forgotten.

Luckily for our group, the coaching staff at Stirling are of the highest calibre. One is Hammy McMillan, the 2016 Scottish men’s curling champion who was also part of Tom Brewster’s team at that year’s European Championships.

“It’s always like this during the Olympics,” he says of the demand seen in recent weeks. “This year I’ve put extra sessions on because there’s always going to be a bigger drive with people watching on TV. The [Try Curling] website sees a big spike.”

He admits the sport looks deceptively easy. “One of the big catch factors for curling at the Olympics is people who look at it and go ‘that looks like something I can do’, unlike say the snowboarding half pipe,” he says.

Two armchair enthusiasts who have decided to try curling for the first time are Marie McQueen, 43, from Bonnybridge, and her work colleague Rhonda Gunn, 45, from Falkirk.

“I’ve wanted to try it for years – I always watch if it’s on TV when the championships are on,” Ms McQueen says after the session. “My husband looked into it and this was the first date we could find.

“It was harder than I expected it to be, but I expected it to be quite technical because when they talk about it on the telly they talk a lot about tactics.

“I thought I’d be lucky enough just to get it anywhere near that circle. I also didn’t appreciate the importance of turning [the stone].”

Ms Gunn adds: “It’s something I’ve always watched on telly and I was quite interested. I work beside Marie, so when she mentioned it I said it was always something I’d wanted to try too, so I decided to come along.

“We thought it looked a bit like ten-pin bowling or bowls – we thought we were a bit young for bowls. Curling also has something a bit different about it.

“I thought it was going to be easier to stay up on the ice and release the stone.”

After the introductory hour, it is easy to see why people catch the curling bug. Delivering a stone into the house is incredibly satisfying and the sport has a “just one more try” appeal. My advice? Give it a go before the ice melts.