Curling grows in popularity

Bellevue curler Mark Robinson on the ice at the Robert Morris rink with his tools of the sport, his rock and his broom. Behind him is the hack, the device he uses to push off when putting the rock in motion. On the team, Mark is the skip, calling the strategy of the game for his team and throwing the last two rocks of each end. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

So which Olympic sport might you consider to be the most exciting to watch? Hockey? Skiing? Luge?

Ask Mark Robinson of Bellevue, and he won't hesitate for a second to answer, "Curling!" and then for as much time as you might have to spare and with just a little persuasion, he might be prevailed upon to discuss some of the finer points of the sport.

Mark, 38, grew up in Windsor, Ontario, met his then wife-to-be, Amy Joy, in Niagara Falls on Valentines Day, 2003. They married and he moved to Bellevue, where she had already been living, in 2005. He is employed as a supply chain manager for a medical company. In addition to all of that, he is a curler.

Mark left Canada, but he did not leave his passion for curling behind.

"I started at age 12. In Canada, it's extremely popular. Over one million play the sport," he said.

But why is it not so very popular in the United States?

"Curling is one of the most misunderstood sports," Mark said. "It's a combination of physical activity, based on finesse, shooting and strategy. Think of it as chess on ice."

The finesse that Mark refers to is displayed by all four members of a curling team, starting with the thrower, who puts in motion the curling rock, a 42 lb. solid piece of polished granite somewhat resembling a large hamburger in shape, by pushing it toward an area named the house, a circular "target" approximately 120 feet ahead. The rock is moved along by the two sweeps, who make it travel farther and straighter. Their handling of the "brooms" puts a spin on the rock and will curl it in the intended direction. The teammate calling all of the moves being made is called the skip.

Victory is claimed by the team that acquires the most points for moving their stones closest to the centers of the circular targets. Each team has eight stones, and when all have been played, the game is over.

"It's all about consistency," Mark said, adding, "It's a sport of physics. Lots of engineers like curling."

It's also about honing specialized skills, with many of the 80 or so members of the Pittsburgh Curling Club (PCC) meeting every Saturday from 9 p.m. to midnight at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center, where they get in some serious ice time. The club formed in 2002 as the first dedicated curling club in Western Pennsylvania. The sport has gained enough popularity that the PCC hosts a "Bonspiel," the official name for a curling tournament, that attracts 40 teams from the United States and Canada over the July 4 holiday.

And while the Neville Island rink offers everything that an avid curler could desire, the PCC has lost some of its ice time due to an increase in junior hockey leagues that share the space. The solution: build a facility that will be used exclusively by PCC, and which will allow membership expansion to 200 and provide opportunities "…to teach, develop, promote and encourage the sport of curling." On track for completion within the next two years, the PCC's home will be located on Myoma Road in Adams Township, just north of Cranberry. Mark noted that PCC currently is seeking corporate sponsors to start building.

Mark described curling as being "…a very social sport for all ages. Sometimes there are 9-year-olds as well as players in their late 70s, all on the same team. And there is wheelchair curling, too."

Nationally, the sport is organized into regions throughout the country, with Pittsburgh being included in the Grand National Curling Club (GNCC), the union of clubs in New England and Mid-Atlantic states. Mark will travel to Easton, MD next week for mixed championships, where teams composed of two male and two female athletes will compete.

Back to the question of which Olympic sport might be the most exciting to watch.
Mark suggests that you answer with the obvious: Curling. "You really can become obsessed with it," he said.

Google Video