In a brash world of trash-talking, in-your-face athletics, curling remains perhaps the lone courteous competition. It seems almost quaint, this old, simple game, which is sort of like shuffleboard on ice. And here in the LaSalle County hamlet of Triumph, the Waltham Curling Club - the oldest in the state - maintains a polite gamesmanship reflective of the quiet contest version at the Winter Olympics.
In a brash world of trash-talking, in-your-face athletics, curling remains perhaps the lone courteous competition.
It seems almost quaint, this old, simple game, which is sort of like shuffleboard on ice. And here in the LaSalle County hamlet of Triumph, the Waltham Curling Club - the oldest in the state - maintains a polite gamesmanship reflective of the quiet contest version at the Winter Olympics.
That's not to say the crowd in Triumph (50 miles northeast of Peoria) doesn't have fun. Many curlers warm up for competition simply by sipping plastic cups of Bud Light. And after matches, the camaraderie flows as easily as the draft beer.
But, though members of the 126-year-old club relish the chilly contests, they always stay low-key. During play, the most raucous gesture is likely to be a congratulatory fist-bump - possibly even between opponents.
"There's not a lot of hoopla," says club member Rachel Puckett. "It's not 'YESSSSSS!' You say, 'Good shot' - or something like that."
Such manners might seem weird in today's all-about-me sporting world. Even amateur after-work leagues - softball, bowling, soccer, you name it - involve plenty of chest-thumping.
Not in curling. Then again, politeness is part of the regulations. The following tenets come from the World Curling Federation's official rules of curling:
- Curlers play to win, but never to humble their opponents.
- A true curler never attempts to distract opponents, nor to prevent them from playing their best, and would prefer to lose rather than to win unfairly.
- Curling demands good sportsmanship, kindly feeling and honourable conduct.
Try selling that to the NBA or NFL. Not a chance.
Then again, maybe those sports will mellow with age. Curling has been around a long time.
The sport got its start in the 1500s in Scotland, when gents killed time by shoving flat stones at targets on frozen ponds. Players began to use beams to sweep in front of the stones, clearing the way and making the paths smoother - and faster.
The Waltham club (named after the surrounding township) got its start in 1884. A visiting Scotsman, John Currie, saw local ponds as natural curling sites. The club still boasts black-and-white photos of teams in long black coats posing proudly after outdoor contests.
Those pictures, along with medals, books ("The Joy of Curling") and other memorabilia, decorate the interior of the Waltham club. Built in 1940, from the outside it looks like an old supper club; inside, the structure is as solid and tidy as ever.
In the locker room before a recent Tuesday league night, players filtered in slowly. Early birds watched a lone TV broadcast the Olympic women's match between the United States and Japan. Observers would yell out congrats ("Nicely done") and criticisms ("That's a dangerous play") as they tried to glean tips for their own games.
Though the Olympics obviously boast the best curlers in the world, the sport's casual attitude remains evident even on a global stage. What other sport features female athletes wearing dangly earrings?
Learn the game
Not long after those initial frozen-pond days in Scotland, the game became stratified. The playing surface is a sheet of ice 14 1/2 feet wide and 146 feet long. At one end, one of the players stands behind a 12-foot circle as sort of an accuracy site. At the other end, another player pushes a 42-pound granite stone toward the circle. As the stone moves, two players sweep the path with brooms - once actual straw brooms, but now mini push-brooms made of graphite and other lightweight substances. The sweeping adjusts the speed and movement of the stone.
Each game - started with the customary "Good curling!" between players - involves 10 ends, the equivalent of a baseball inning. In each end, teams alternate with eight stones apiece. In an end, only one team can score; a point is given for each stone that's closer to the center than any of the opponent's stones; thus, the top score in one end would be eight - if all eight stones were closer to the center than any of the opposing stones.
Actually, the concept is easy to understand after watching just one end. Still, though anyone can grasp a pastime like bowling or darts, mastering the skills involved is another story. Curling is like that.
Still, the nonthreatening environment makes curling an inviting hobby. The competition is so easygoing that no referee is needed; players score themselves. By comparison, curling's laid-back atmosphere makes senior-league night at your local bowling alley seem like professional wrestling.
The casual tone helped Puckett catch the curling bug. After she happened to spot a match on TV during the 2002 Olympics, she heard about the club in Triumph.
"I just came to an open house, and liked it," says Puckett, 32, of Streator. "Then I joined a league, and I'm still here."
Like almost everyone on the 90-member club, she lives outside Triumph. The unincorporated burg is home to 150 people, a grain elevator, two bars, a bank - and one curler.
"I'm the only curler who lives in town," says Pete Carmichael, 43, who has been playing since age 4.
Why doesn't anyone else in town play? He paused, as if no one had ever asked him that before, then said with a smile, "That's a good question."
During any Olympics, the club sees an influx of outside interest. Newcomers need not be daunted by the sport's physical demands.
"It compares to bowling," says Will Vaughn, 46, of Streator.
In other words, you can be less Lindsey Vonn than Larry the Cable Guy - as long as you can keep those arms sweeping. Janitors would be a natural in this endeavor.
Meanwhile, the financial investment can be minimal. Most players wear workout pants and sweatshirts, sometimes a cap to cut the chill of the 30-degree ice rink. Some simply wear gym shoes; curling shoes - one foot slick with a Teflon sole to slide, the other rubber-bottomed for grip - cost about $100. A broom can run anywhere from $20 to more than $200.
No pads or other protection are needed. Injuries are rare.
Still, says Puckett, "We've had people fall before: broken bones, fall on brooms. I fall about twice a season."
The season lasts roughly between Thanksgiving and St. Patrick's Day. Sometimes, club members travel elsewhere (usually Chicago and Wisconsin) for games. This weekend, the Waltham club hosts its annual bonspiel (or tournament), which will feature 20 teams, including two from Canada. Preparations are minimal: Visitors schedule hotel rooms in nearby Mendota or Utica, while the club simply orders extra kegs of beer.
On league night, a match lasts about two hours. Sometimes, a call will go out for "stacking the brooms" - a euphemism for a break for quick cups of liquid refreshment. After the night's play, members will stick around for chatting and sipping.
"It depends on how much partying you want to do," Puckett says with a smile.
They leave with handshakes all around. Courtesy, you know.
Peoria Journal Star columnist Phil Luciano can be reached at (309) 686-3155 or email@example.com.