Olympics fuel interest in curling open house

Jackson Tse walked off the ice inside the Schenectady Curling Club with a huge smile on his face. He
Cailtin Janiszewski of Schenectady throws the stone while learning to curl at the Schenectady Curling Club's open house on Saturday.
Cailtin Janiszewski of Schenectady throws the stone while learning to curl at the Schenectady Curling Club's open house on Saturday.

Jackson Tse walked off the ice inside the Schenectady Curling Club with a huge smile on his face. He was never too good on ice skates. But this? This he could do.

“It was easier than I thought,” the 11-year-old said, his younger sister Maddie nodding nearby. “I always thought the stone would be heavier.”

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics end today, and if you’re like anyone else with a TV tuned to an NBC channel you’ve probably glimpsed a minute (or hours) of curling on the big screen — you know, that sport with the crazy broom action.

As Schenectady’s local curling club rediscovers every four years, the sport is either harder or easier than the public thinks. It’s easier if you believe that every Olympic sport must somehow be extremely difficult. It’s harder if you believe that curling is just sliding a stone and pushing a broom. Either way, the eclectic sport gains the attention of the masses every four years and that means big business for local clubs like Schenectady’s, which introduced about 500 newcomers to the sport during two open house sessions this weekend.

“I saw it on the Olympics one year and thought, I can do that,” said Shannon Magee, 36, of Slingerlands. “I knew there was this club close to us. If I wanted to try bobsledding or luge I would have had to go all the way up to Lake Placid. And this was kind of a little niche sport that you don’t ever see too much of, you know?”

The Olympics have always meant increased interest in certain sports every four years. Capital Region ski centers have said they see a larger than usual turnout from people inspired by the Winter Games. But curling clubs haven’t always had this uptick.

While curling was included as one of the original five Winter Olympics sports at the 1924 Chamonix games — along with bobsleigh, ice hockey, skiing and skating — it disappeared from the games and the public conscience for more than 70 years before being reintroduced as an official Olympic sport in 1998.

Of course, curling got its start well before the Olympics. It was invented in Scotland in the early 1500s, and dedicated clubs around the world have worked to grow their numbers regardless of the attention curling gets on the international stage.

Curling first started in Schenectady in 1907 and by 1951 the Schenectady Curling Club was operating out of its current facility on Balltown Road by the Mohawk Golf Course. During curling’s long absence from the Olympics, local membership stagnated at around 100 members. But its reintroduction at the 1998 Nagano Games sparked local interest and since then membership has swelled to more than 200.

“We expect to be over 250 this year, maybe even 300 by next year, with this interest,” said club President Robert Klees. “The Olympics are quite a boom for us. We host these open houses each fall, but during the Olympics we always host extra.”

In the off years, the club may see as many as 25 or 30 new members. Members range from 6-year-olds to nonagenarians, another indication of the sport’s appeal and accessibility.

Klees describes it as an everyman sport, the kind of thing you see on TV and think: “I can do that.” The goal is to slide a polished granite stone that weighs about 40 pounds on a sheet of ice toward a target of four concentric rings. The most points are earned when the stone lands in the button, or the center ring. Two sweepers with brooms stay slightly ahead of the stone as it slides, sweeping the pebbled ice in front of the stone to smooth it out and send the stone down a desired path.

“A lot of people are here to try it because they see it on TV,” he said. “I saw it on TV six years ago and got hooked. I got on the ice and fell down my first time and was like, this is going to be fun. I was a hockey player, and being athletic definitely helps you with the balance and flexibility. But even un-athletic people come in here and can be extremely good at this sport.”

That’s one of the reasons you’ll hear people describe it as “chess on ice.” Curling is more about strategy and teamwork than about Olympian feats of strength or speed. Magee also likes it for its sportsmanship.

“It’s very social,” she said. “After every game, you sit down at a table with the other team, you have a drink and you talk about the match. It’s a really good way to meet new people.”

Some older club members fell into the sport by accident, before it was emblazoned on TV screens every four years.

Tom Vickerson, 51, grew up on Balltown Road and was constantly wondering what the white cinder block building across the street was for.

“A friend of mine I went to school with, his family curled. So he brought me over here one day and I’ve been in love with the sport ever since.”

He was 14 at the time.

“That was the 1970s and a lot of people didn’t know about it,” he said. “When I started curling people looked at me funny. ‘You do what?’ they always asked. But now that it’s on TV, it’s becoming more mainstream.”

After Vickerson got out of the Navy in 1984, he married his wife and moved to Rochester, where they joined a curling club and played until 2000. They moved back to Niskayuna that year and have been members of the Schenectady Curling Club ever since.

“My boys are fourth-generation curlers out of this club because my wife’s grandparents curled here, her parents curled here, we curl here and now our kids curl here,” said Vickerson, who was helping out at the open house Saturday. “It’s something different. No matter your athletic ability, it’s a sport you can excel in. To curl at the Olympic level, yeah, you’ve got to be pretty fit and athletic. But just to do club curling, anybody can do it. Our oldest member right now is 92 and he’s out on the ice two to three times a week.”

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