No Winter Olympics sport takes more abuse from TV viewers than curling. With 12 days of curling on tap in Sochi (daily play continues until medals are awarded to the women on Feb. 20, and the men on Feb. 21), it’s time we change that. We phoned 2010 Olympics coach Phill Drobnick, who’s now the Project 2018 National Coach for USA Curling, to ask a few burning questions, like why the sport’s three-hour matches are interesting and if we could, theoretically, become Olympians if we started training today.
Burning Question #1: Why is this good TV? For Drobnick, it’s all about the strategy. An Olympic curling match consists of 10 “ends” — think of them as innings in which each team gets to throw eight stones alternating back-and-forth. The goal is to finish the end with your stones closest to the “button,” the small circle at the center of the target known as “the house.” A team earns one point for each of its stones in or touching the house that is closer to the center than any stone of its opponent. For a more detailed explanation, click here. Where it gets interesting: Teams aren’t necessarily in a hurry to be the closest: The first four to eight stones thrown in an end may essentially be pawns. “They don’t want to just throw one onto the button, because then the other team is just gonna take it out,” Drobnick explains. “They’ll throw up some guards. You can really see at what point the skip [the strategist/shotcaller who delivers the last pair of stones for his team in each end] tries to make his move. He may throw the same shot three times in a row, and then he’ll go and change it, and then you’ll know now they’re puttin’ their offense on. The last two shots of each end, you’re usually seeing them make some pretty neat shots — one rock into another rock. There’s a lot more action with the last eight rocks of an end than there is with the first eight rocks of an end.”
For many viewers, the sweeping — and shouting — is the most entertaining aspect. “When you’re watching the curlers sweep, you can really see how much energy they’re putting into it and how intense it is. Usually the more important the shot is, or the closer they get to making it, the louder the skip is gonna yell,” Drobnick says. “You can watch for the level the sweepers are sweeping at when the skipper is yelling, ‘Sweep!’ or ‘Hurry!’ versus when they’re screaming. You’ll see the sweepers take it up about 10 more notches at that point, because they know it’s just that important.” The faster you sweep, the faster the stone goes. “You’re actually smoothing out the pebble on the ice and you’re heating up the ice so that the rock goes quicker over it.”
Burning Question #2: Are curlers athletes? According to Drobnick, the game has seen a big change since the 2010 Vancouver Games. “The kind of conversion that Tiger Woods made in golf, when golfers were looked at as heavier-set guys that are just out there golfing and all of the sudden everyone’s fit and in great shape and they’re athletes. That’s what the curlers are now,” Drobnick says. “They work hard in the gym. They work hard practicing every day.” Drobnick works with USA Curling’s junior national program, which sets up strength and conditioning regimens. They like their curlers in the gym three times a week working out their arms and doing cardio for sweeping (those intense 30-second bursts add up) and their legs for throwing (delivering the stone): “We don’t want them to lose their legs halfway through a week when they’re playing in a big competition,” he says. Curlers may only play a few games each week, but they throw rocks every day. “That’s their driving range,” Drobnick says. “They go down to the club and they work on specific shots that they want to get better at. They throw 75 to 100 rocks in practice a day at a broom.”
Burning Question #3: How difficult is it to play, really? “In some cases, saying that it’s not that difficult to throw a rock and get it on the button is probably true. You could probably get on the ice, and you could toss it down there and get lucky. But the reality is, there’s a lot of training that goes into it,” Drobnick says. “Anyone might be able to throw the rock down the ice, but not everybody is gonna be able to figure out how to score points on somebody.” There are various draw shots used to get rocks into the house and various takeout shots used to remove them. Different releases can be used to set a straight path or curl (you apply a clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation). “The more shots you have in your bag, the more likely you are to be able to do different things that the other team isn’t able to do,” Drobnick says. “It takes a lifetime to learn all the different shots that you could possibly throw.”
Burning Question #4: How often does he hear, “I’m 40. I want to go to the Olympics. I’ll be a curler!” “It’s a very common thing to hear: ‘I want to be a curler and I want to go to the Olympics,’ because they are everyday people going to the Olympics: They’re schoolteachers, stay-at-home moms. They have a variety of jobs,” Drobnick says. “It’s kind of a cool thing to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I could do that,’ but the amount of time they put in to compete at that level is years and years and years of practice. They may be everyday people, but they’re still spending their own time and money for years and years and years.”
Burning Question #5: Will we see the U.S. rock anything as awesome as the Norwegians’ pants (pictured)? Drobnick thinks the Norwegian men’s uniforms are great for the game: “We’re in a sport where wherever we can get media, it’s an opportunity to grow our game,” he says. But don’t expect to see the U.S. following suit anytime soon: “Nike is the sponsor for USA Curling, so we get a lot of great Nike clothes, but nothing really as bright or as outside the box as that.”