FALMOUTH — It is arguably the only sport where those north of 50 can still realistically dream of becoming Olympians. Curling, that curious competition where participants frantically sweep the ice with brooms, is not solely the province of the young and the robust. Raymond “Bud” Somerville, considered the most famous US curler ever, won a bronze medal at the 1992 Albertville Games at 55.
So I thought: Why not me? That’s how I happened to be at the Cape Cod Curling Club last month, learning to throw the polished granite stone and sweep the ice alongside curlers young enough to be my grandchildren and old enough to be my grandparents.
When one thinks of Cape Cod and ice, it is usually associated with a cold beverage on a hot August afternoon. But venture inside the club, just a short drive from the sandy beaches of Falmouth, and you’re in a climate chilled to 40 degrees, perhaps sipping hot chocolate and wearing a wool sweater.
Curlers from 6 to 93 regularly take to the sheet of ice from October to March. Novices toss the stone and sweep alongside curling veterans, blending competition with camaraderie.
“It’s the most wonderful team sport because of the combination of exercise, strategy, and competitiveness,” says Russ Lemcke, 73, a native of Saskatchewan, who has been curling at the club for 16 years. “It’s such a decent sport. You don’t have to bash anybody apart. It’s a bit like golf. The only difference between men and women is at the highest levels.”
As a Canadian, Lemcke grew up playing hockey and considered curling to be on the quirky side.
“I thought it was a stupid sport as a youngster. And my dad did it, which made me think it was doubly stupid,” he says. “Then I came here [to Falmouth] and said to my wife, ‘I know how to play this game.’ ”
Curling is a lot like the ancient Italian game of bocce, except you’re on ice and the 42-pound stone is considerably heavier than a bocce ball. Steve O’Neil, club president, compares the finesse required to successfully throw the stone to making a putt in golf. “It’s more touch than force,” he says. “The longer you hold onto it, the less energy it has to travel down the sheet of ice.”
Easier said than done. It requires timing and tempo to slide along the ice and release the stone so that it remains straight. As for the touch, that demands practice. “It’s like any other sport: The more you work at it, the better you become,” O’Neil says.
Curling was invented in Scotland in the 16th century. Its origins in North America date to the late 1700s, with the Montreal Curling Club being founded in 1807. The sport spread to the United States in 1820 when the first American curling rink was established at The Country Club in Brookline, although the Orchard Lake Curling Club, near Detroit, became the country’s first official curling club in 1832. Today, curling thrives mostly in New England, the mid-Atlantic states, and Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, although there are clubs in Texas, Nebraska, even in California. There are 26 states with active clubs, and more than 15,000 curlers in the country.
The Cape Cod club is one of three in Massachusetts (along with The Country Club and the Broomstones Curling Club in Wayland) that operate with their own “Ice House” in which curlers compete on sheets of ice laid down and lined specifically for curling.
The club was founded in 1969 by Dr. David Dewees, a Falmouth resident who became intrigued with the sport after observing it in Brookline. Members curled at Falmouth Ice Arena before moving into the current three-sheet facility in 1975, which was financed and built by the J. K. Lilly family (of Lilly Pharmaceuticals).
In curling, players slide the stone toward a target area consisting of four rings, called the “house.” Teams of four players take turns throwing the stone, with points scored for the stones that finish closest to the center of the house. The stone’s path and speed can be altered by two sweepers with brooms who straddle the stone as it slides down the ice.
The skip, who is positioned at the end of the house, barks instructions to sweepers, who either lift their brooms or frantically sweep in front of the stone, thus heating the ice, causing it to speed up. “It’s cold in there, but if I’m sweeping, I’m sweating,” O’Neil says.
There is generally a spike in interest in an Olympic year as inquisitive television viewers are intrigued by the peculiar sport. During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, a steady stream of newcomers showed up at the club asking to learn the game.
Kathy Colgan of Cotuit began curling here in 2004. “I dropped someone off here one day and another member said I should give it a try. I told her she was crazy, that it was on ice and I hated the cold. I’ve been here ever since,” she says. “What you need most in this sport is enthusiasm. Once you have the love for the game, everything else follows. Some people describe it as chess on ice.”
Unlike golf, curling doesn’t require endless lessons, practice, or expensive equipment.
Learn to Curl programs are offered at the Cape club throughout fall and winter, and the club will host open houses in February to coincide with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, hoping to grow the game and expand a membership that stands at 300, with 175 active curlers.
Year-round competitions with other clubs, called bonspiels, are open to the public. There are three in July that are attended by teams from Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many curlers make them a part of their annual vacation. A heated viewing section overlooks the ice, and overhead television monitors allow viewers to watch the action at the far end of the sheet. The viewing section also includes a seating and bar area.
O’Neil, a retired Falmouth police officer who became club president five years ago, heads a diverse membership of lawyers, businessmen, scientists, and local tradesmen. Among them is Lemcke, who works in mergers and acquisitions for a private equity firm and was scheduled to depart for Japan on business in a few days.
“It’s such a decent sport,” Lemcke says. “It’s the sport for a lifetime.”