On a disarmingly warm day in March, when the temperature hit 80 degrees, Barrington resident Stephanie Martin and Julie Denten are holed up at an indoor ice rink, throwing a 42-pound granite stone across the slick surface.
“Yep, yep, yep,” Denten calls out assuredly as Martin sweeps a narrow broom in front of the stone, trying to speed its progress by melting the ice just ahead of it.
“Up, up!” she calls, and Martin pulls the broom back to watch the stone glide into the concentric circle of red and blue rings at one end of the ice.
As they do most nights, Denten and Martin are practicing for the world championship curling competition in Copenhagen. Both are members of the first senior women’s curling team the Northbrook-based Chicago Curling Club will send to world competition. Along with fellow curlers Laurie Rahn of Lake Forest and Pam Oleinik of Brookfield, WI, the foursome will travel to Denmark for the eleven-day competition in April.
Since October, they have practiced or played in league games two to three hours a day, five to six days a week.
“It’s a huge commitment, big money, you’re away from your families a lot,” says coach Joni Cotten, who competed in curling at the 2002 Olympics.
For this foursome, it’s well worth the effort. Three of the four played together last year, hoping to make it to worlds, but came in runner-up at the national competition. This year, they swapped out a player and won nationals in December.
Curling Takes Years to Master
Hidden behind a gas station and an auto body shop in a low brick building on Dundee Road just off the Edens Expressway, the Chicago Curling Club has been around since 1948. Among its roughly 200 active members, curlers over 50 years old—like Denten, Martin, Oleinik and Rahn—are common. In fact, the club has one member who is in her 90s, according to the coach.
“It’s a game you can play for decades,” says Cotten, a Mount Prospect resident who started playing in 1974 with the Wilmette Curling Club.
“The best curlers in the world are not ones that are in their teens and 20s, they’re in their 30s and 40s,” she adds.
That’s in part because curling takes so long to master. While Denten and Martin say that learning to throw the granite “stone” or “rock” down the ice wasn’t hard, perfecting the technique is what is challenging.
“To get really good, you have to put up a lot of hours and time and practice,” says Martin. The Barrington resident started playing casually in 1992 and gradually got more serious. Because she had ice-skated as a kid, she was comfortable with the ice—although she had never skated competitively.
Curling is very different from other ice sports, however. Unlike speed skating, ice-skating or hockey, it isn’t about the speed or agility with which you move on the ice. Like bowling or golf, it’s about the form of your throw and the controlled effort with which you spin the stone out of your hand and across the ice.
Denten came to curling from golf, in fact.
“People said, ‘Have you curled?’ and I said, ‘No,” recalls the Northbrook resident. “I don’t play golf anymore,” she laughs.
The game is played in teams of four; each person takes turn throwing the stone while two other teammates sweep it down the ice. The goal is to get your stones closest to the center or “belly” of the rings, located 150 feet down the ice. According to Cotten, two very strong sweepers can actually cause a stone to travel 15 feet further as they sweep vigorously in front of it, creating a pathway of slightly melted ice.
Like a golf course, the conditions of the ice can change at any time, Cotten explains. The team captain’s job is to guide the sweeper, while the sweeper helps the captain determine how fast the stone has left the hands of the thrower.
“You’re trying to estimate where it’s going to go,” says Cotten. “It’s a game that keeps you coming back, because you almost never master it.”
Teamwork: ‘It’s Like A Marriage’
On a Thursday night, the ice rink is relatively quiet. Two of the four curling lanes are in use, with Denten and Martin competing in coed league play on one and a practice game going on in another lane. The curlers call back and forth in rhythm to one other as the stone spins down the ice, and Denten and Martin stand at the back of the rink beneath a long scoreboard, discussing plays.
According to Cotten, team dynamics are nearly as important as skill and practice in curling.
“It’s like a marriage in a way,” she says. “You’re starting back in October if you want to play elite.”
Denten and Martin have known each other for years, and have become close friends on and off the ice, according to Martin.
“To get really good, you have to put up a lot of hours and time and practice,” says Martin. “Curling is like our second job this year.”
But the teammates believe it’s worth all the hours at the ice rink off Dundee Road.
“We are very serious about doing as good a job as possible representing the United States,” says Martin. This past weekend, the team held a lasagna dinner in order to raise money for their travel expenses.
When they travel to Copenhagen in late April, Team USA will compete against teams from 14 other countries—including Scotland, Sweden, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Russia and Canada, where some of the world’s best curlers come from.
The team hopes to make it to the playoffs, but Coach Cotten is realistic about their chances.
“It’s a humbling game,” she says. “You can have a really good game one night and then the next night you’ll have a really bad game.”
So Martin and Denten take turns on the ice rink, crouching low and pulling back to cast the stone down the lanes, again and again and again.