As Scotland goes for victory in Vegas, Jane Bradley tries her hand at what she mistakes for ‘glorified bowling on ice’.
I was bitten by the curling bug for the first time in 2002 when my flatmates and I stayed up all night to watch Scottish skip Rhona Martin slide the final stone to victory in a tense match to scoop the Winter Olympics gold medal.
The win, at Salt Lake City in Utah, was Britain’s first Winter Olympic gold medal since Torvill and Dean bagged the ice dancing gold in 1984 – and Scotland went crazy. Curling rinks soon reported a huge surge in demand from people desperate to try the game and four years later, curling matches at the next Winter Olympics attracted around five million TV viewers, eclipsing ice hockey and figure skating.
Curling, which began life on the frozen lochs of Scotland centuries ago, suddenly became cool. This year, it enjoyed another resurgance when the sport saw Winter Olympic drama in the form of Perth-born Eve Muirhead, who misjudged her final shot to see Team GB miss out on a place on the medal table, while the icy gaze of model-esque Russian competitor Anastasia Bryzgalova also attracted plenty of media attention. At Murrayfield curling rink in Edinburgh, coaches have this year taken more than 400 beginners through their “try curling” introductory sessions, compared to just 80 in a “normal”, non-Olympic year.
“We hope a lot of those people will keep on with it,” explains Evie Chamberlain, sport development manager at the rink. She laughs. “But perhaps not all of them, we might not have enough space for that, though we do have plenty of capacity for new players.”
It is bad timing. The rink is this week due to close until September, just as Bruce Mouat, who trains at the facility, is set to battle it out for a medal after a successful few days in the early stages of the World Curling Championships in Las Vegas. The scheduling of the Winter Olympics and the world championships means that the facility closes for the year just as demand for the sport is at its peak.
With an ice temperature of minus 4.7 degrees Celsius, keeping a rink going during the summer months would be expensive and difficult.
However, the timing of the season really dates back to the days of outdoor curling, when players met up on frozen lakes, or custom-made curling sheets which froze in the depths of winter. “It is traditionally a farming sport,” explains Scott Dakers, who has been a curling coach at Murrayfield for 30 years and is to put me through my paces during my first stint on the ice. “Farmers would have had some down time during the winter with less to do, while in the summer they would usually be very busy, which is probably at least part of the reason that curling rinks close in the summer.”
Outdoor curling, however, is all but over in today’s climate. An annual hope to resurrect the famed “Grand Match” between north and south Scotland – which has traditionally taken place on the Lake of Menteith in Perthshire – has not been achieved since 1979, due to a lack of consistently freezing weather. On a Wednesday morning, however, Murrayfield is buzzing with dozens of veteran curlers, some of them as old as 90, who play up to three times a week at the rink.
Harry MacPherson, 76, from Uphall, West Lothian, tells me he took up the sport after he retired from teaching 18 years ago.
“I told someone I thought it looked easy on the TV,” he remembers. “Then they challenged me to come along. I’ve been playing ever since.”
Mr MacPherson, however, admits that it is not as easy as it looks. “It was a lot harder than I expected it to be, it is very skilful,” he explains. “It is also very sociable and really good exercise.”
I have to admit that I too, was a sceptic. Glorified bowling on ice, with a bit of frantic brushing thrown in? How hard could that be? It turns out, pretty hard.
After a good session scrubbing the ice with a broom – the high intensity brushing for 29 seconds raises the temperature of the surface by up to a degree, allowing the stone to slide more smoothly – I am red in the face and out of breath. The pensioners on the next “sheet”, however – including my pal Harry – seem completely unphased.
The stone throwing part, too, is pretty tricky. Proper curlers, like Scott, who is coaching us, have special shoes with a detachable outer sole, allowing them to have one steady foot on the ice and one foot which slips easily over the surface. For beginners like me, the effect is recreated with a piece of lino on which I place my left foot, while the other one is on a “hack”, a sort of mini starting block. Scott teaches me to draw back to create momentum and then slide forwards, one leg stretched out on the ice behind me. Unlike a skating rink, the ice is peppered, pre-match, with tiny bumps, created by a not-very-hi-tech invention which is essentially a showerhead connected to a backpack, which sprays fine droplets of water onto the frozen surface.
I’m intrigued to hear that the unique “slide” move of throwing a curling stone was only invented in the 1950s, by a Canadian player called Ken Watson. Before that, curlers threw the stone standing up, in a movement not dissimilar to that of bowling.
The stones themselves – at least those used in worldwide competition – are all made from granite quarried from Ailsa Craig.
The other beginners in my group are quickly whizzing stones down to the far end of the sheet, many successfully landing on the “house” – the coloured target rings marked on the ice. But I forget to let go in time and mine scutters a few feet before coming to a halt in the middle of the rink. “You should be very proud of yourselves, you’ve only been curling for 40 minutes and your stones are already in play,” Scott tells the group, meaning that the stones have successfully reached the bottom section of the rink.
When I make a face at my own, lonely stone, he pauses. “You’re what is known as a project,” he says kindly. By the end of the session, however, I have started remembering to let go.
My partner and I even win a quick match of ‘mini curling’, which Scott later tells us they usually play with their child members.
I’m still proud.