"THE FIRST TIME I curled was in junior high," says John Shuster, a Minnesota native who serves as the men's skipa combination manager/cleanup hitteron the five-man U.S. Olympic Curling Team. "The local club handed out fliers and we all got a good laugh. Later, I got intrigued."
Curling? The sport with the brooms? Isn't that just shuffleboard on ice? Kind of, but there's more to it than that. It's complicated and arcane, and for some reason people can't look away when it's on television. Heading into Vancouver, curling is the only Winter Olympic sport that increased its TV audience from 2002 to 2006. As a result, NBC plans to air 100 hours of it, plus live streaming video, with matches being played in a new 6,000-seat arena in the most curling-rabid country on the planet, Canada.
"Without a doubt, it will be one of the hottest tickets at the Olympics," says Molly Solomon, NBC's coordinating producer for the Vancouver Games.
Since debuting at the Nagano Games, in 1998, curling has become a quadrennial cult hit. In 2006, when the U.S. men won a surprise bronze medal, an average of 876,000 viewers tuned in. Online, the 2006 women's skip, Cassie Johnson, nearly beat out Bode Miller on NBCOlympics.com's list of most-trafficked athletes.
Curling's moment has been a long time coming. Originating in Scotland in the 16th century, the sport made its way to Canada in 1759 and got a foothold in the U.S. in 1835, in places like Detroit. In the 175 years since, the sport has blossomed, albeit mostly above the frost line of the Upper Midwest. "Winters are long here," offers Shuster, "and ice fishing isn't for everyone."
Winters are even longer in Canada, where a million people curl (compared with 16,000 in the U.S.), and Canadian teams are perennial powerhousesin three Olympics, they've won two gold, two silver, and two bronze medals. Canada, as well as other dominant countries like Switzerland, use a rigorous multiyear process designed to single out the best teams; the U.S. simply sends whatever team wins an open-to-the-public Olympic qualifier. The U.S. method, while compelling, can also lead to inconsistent performances once the Games roll around.
To prepare for the attention, U.S. curling officials instituted a series of off-season training camps, a first. They hired a sports psychologist to mentor the athletes and began using Dartfish software, the same video-analysis technology used by pro skiers, to find minor flaws in their movement. It was a bold advance for a sport that considers post-match beers customarywinner buysand whose Olympians are generally part-time athletes. Shuster manages a bar; Debbie McCormick, the 2010 women's skip, works at Home Depot and counts pheasant hunting as a hobby.
"It's addicting to watch, no doubt," says Rick Patzke, chief operating officer for USA Curling. "But then you want to try it, because it doesn't look that hard. You think, Hey, here's my ticket to the Olympics."
7. By rotating their stones, players can "curl" shots around guard stones
THE RULES: Four-man teams curl for ten ends (like bowling frames) to position their rocks over the hog line and as close to the button as possible. The team with a stone closest to the button scores, but only those rocks closer than all the opposing team's rocks count. Got it?
SHOUT THIS: "Nice hit-and-roll!" WHEN: A curler takes out one or more of an opponent's well-placed stones, and his own stops in scoring position in the house WHICH IS LIKE: Making an end-zone interception
SHOUT THIS: "Blank the end!" WHEN: A curler needs to clear the house with the hammer, the last rock in an end, to maintain a strategic advantage WHICH IS LIKE: Bunting to advance the runner
SHOUT THIS: "He's been throwing hoggers all night!" WHEN: A curler has repeatedly failed to clear the hog line with his shot, causing the errant stone to be removed from play WHICH IS LIKE: Hucking an air ball
SHOUT THIS: "This guy's totally off the broom." WHEN: A curler misses the mark set by his skip's broom (similar to a catcher holding his mitt as a target=) WHICH IS LIKE: A pitcher who's lost his release point
The first time we heard about Julia Mancuso, she was winning gold in the 2006 giant slalom, in Turin, after top U.S. contender Lindsey Vonn was injured in practice. The Lake Tahoe native went on to have a career-best season, but in the years that followed, her results were hindered by injury. Now 25 and heading into Vancouver, Mancuso is the underdog again. You can follow her Olympic journey on Twitter.
OUTSIDE: Déjà vu. Are you faster when you aren't expected to win? MANCUSO: I really don't care what other people predict or who's favored. My strength is going into big events and just skiing. Maybe other people don't ski as well at the Olympics. The only thing different for me is the physical preparation, making sure I'm well rested and that I have the right equipment and training.
Are you someone who doesn't feel pressure? I don't think of the negative consequences; I think of the positive consequences. I do remember being more nervous for my second run at the Olympics. I'd won the first.
What about rivalry, like with Lindsey Vonn? We're not really rivals, but we don't have much in common. In the past few years, she's distanced herself from the ski team. She has her trainers and her husband traveling with her all the time.
There's talk that fame has slowed you down. Any truth to that? It's lots of stuff. There were changes in the equipment rules, and I struggled to find new skis. I compressed disks in my back and had hip surgery. Last year was really disappointing for me, but it came at a good time. I could focus on becoming healthy instead of dealing with little injuries. I'm feeling 100 percent better.
Good enough to win? I have a medal already. I've already achieved my dream. When I was younger, I said I wanted to win four gold medals. One's good for now.
We saw it with the Beijing Water Cube aquatics center and now again with Vancouver's $177 million Richmond Olympic Oval: Host nations love it when world records fall on their soil, so they build venues that up their chances.
1. Six infrared sensors hanging from the ceiling monitor the surface temps of the ice so they can be kept at 17.6 degrees in the straights and 21.2 in the curves.
2. Computers compare surface temperature with readings from thermostats embedded in the slab and along the cooling pipes to keep them constant.
3. The rink's refrigeration hoses are compartmentalized in the concrete slab, allowing solutions of different temperatures to be pumped through.
Changes were made to this article to correct mistakes printed in the magazine.