In one hand, a broom; in the other, a significant chunk of Scottish granite.
Curling, will you marry me?
"The thing about curling is that there’s no booing," one of my instructors says. "Curling is a gentleman’s sport."
Yeah, right. Till now.
For the first time in my life, I am curling. For the first time in my life, I am better at something than 99% of humankind.
Admittedly, you don’t run across a lot of curling enthusiasts. It seems medieval, almost, or a scene out of Harry Potter. You play it on ice, with brooms and ginormous pucks the size of my dream burger. All it really needs is flying monkeys.
Curling is like something they invented at the University of Minnesota, on a wintry day when they’d all been drinking a little schnapps and no one could find the Twister.
So, yes, curling is probably the most curious of all the upcoming winter Olympic events: little understood, mocked and ridiculed.
Finally, I’ve met a sport that is me.
"It doesn’t take long to become a decent curler, but a lifetime to master," says Nick Kitinski, president of the Hollywood Curling Club.
That’s right, L.A. has a curling club. Kitinski started it two years ago, in response to growing interest in the sport. Though 500 years old, curling didn’t become an Olympic medal event until 1998. But its social component — and charming quirks — quickly fueled interest.
Today, there are well over 100 clubs across the country, including five in California (Orange County just added a team).
Hollywood Curling might be L.A.’s version of the Jamaican bobsled team, an improbable though endearing trinket of a team. Sixty players strong, the club holds beginners clinics all year, while conducting league play and competing against other clubs in tournaments.
Last weekend, its women’s team won a regional in Seattle and now advances to the club nationals.
No, no one from Hollywood Curling is headed for the Vancouver Games, not yet. The club’s biggest problem, members say, is finding a sponsor, which would help it travel to still more tournaments.
Till then, Hollywood Curling, based at the Valley Ice Center rink in Panorama City, mostly remains a rallying point for expats who played it growing up and as a social activity for curious Americans looking for something a little different.
"We were in an airport once," recalls club member Donna Umali Mendoza. "And someone heard we were off to a tournament and they said, ‘Good luck with your hair-care competition.’ "
So, though it’s growing, curling still seems like some sort of secret society to many Americans, its rules and strategies a mystery.
"You don’t throw the stone, you release the stone," explains Cindy Wood, one of the club’s stars.
I also thought curling was a Vince Vaughn movie waiting to happen. And, on that point, I might actually be right.
Lights! Camera! Bartender!
"A tradition is to go out for drinks after," says the club’s Matt Gamboa.
"They call it ‘broom stacking.’ And the winning team has to buy."
Up close, this oddball sport is surprisingly elegant. The shooter pushes off from "the hack," a footing that functions like a sprinter’s block. The curler glides across the ice and releases the stone before reaching the end line, known as "the hog."
In person, the 42-pound stone produces a deep throaty moan, the timbre of a wooden boat rubbing a pier. It virtually snores across the ice.
"You want it to spin 2 1/2 times," says Wood, who learned the game while growing up in Canada, where 90% of the world’s curlers reside. "If you put too much spin on it, it will veer off course."
Except for all the sweeping, which speeds the stone or slightly changes its direction, curling is much like shuffleboard. Teams of four players take turns aiming at the bull’s-eye in an area called "the house." A team gets a point for each stone that winds up closer to the target, about 120 feet away, than the other team’s stones. An Olympic contest consists of 10 "ends," much like frames or innings.
It’s a game more of finesse than muscle — requiring an archer’s steady hand. Still, it’s more physical than you might imagine, in that the smooth release means everything. If the inertia of the approach isn’t spot-on, a player will try to slightly correct during the release, which is like a quarterback throwing on the run.
"A lot of new players are surprised at how physical it is," Gamboa says. "They’re sore in spots they’ve never been sore in before."
Me, I didn’t come close to "the house" in several attempts, though I think my form was first-rate. By that, I mean I didn’t fall down — not once — even though my feet were completely numb and icicles were forming up around my tonsils.
"Always sort of compete," that’s my motto. So I did.