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When it comes to curling in N.H., we all feel like Olympic athletes

  • Sweepers Brian Gately and Lorie Taliento work the stone so that it will travel farther at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The stones are lined up for the curling competition at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Lorie Taliento of Mirror Lake starts to sweep in front of the stone just as her father Paul Belvilue releases it at the curling competition at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • JoJo Belvilue (left) and her daughter Lorie Talento start to sweep the stone as husband Paul releases it as the family competes in the curling competition at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Maida Kreis follows through on launching the stone during the curling competition at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Lorie Taliento (left), and her mother JoJo Belvilue watch the curling action on the other side of the rink at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Lorie Taliento of Mirror Lake shows the form of one of the top stone throwers during the curling competition at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Lorie Taliento of Mirror Lake shows the form to send a stone that has won her praise during the curling competition at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. With the Winter Olympics in full swing, the less-intimidating sport of curling has offered many Granite Staters a chance to get in on the fun. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Lorie Taliento of Mirror Lake celebrates a successful throw of a stone at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A stone is swept while traveling toward the button during the curling competition at the Pop Whalen Ice & Arts Center in Wolfeboro on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor columnist
Monday, February 12, 2018

Their rallying cry moved through the ice arena in Wolfeboro on Sunday night, from player to player.

“Hey, I can do that.”

Five words that meant we common folk could relate to those elite athletes at the Winter Olympics. Five words that provided comfort to members of the Lakes Region Curling Association. Curling is user-friendly. Curling is fan-friendly.

At the Olympic level, Alpine skiing and figure skating and luge all scream the same thing: Don’t try this at home.

Curling?

“Hey, I can do that.”

“I’d never done it,” David Lee of Tuftonboro told me during a break in the action at the Pop Whalen Ice Arena. “I thought I could do it and I was looking for a winter sport. It’s been wonderful.”

Lee serves as the perfect poster child for this league and this sport, because Lee is an 84-year-old man with two replaced knees. Curling, though, has the answer for players like him.

The league uses something called a push stick, used to push the curling rock without bending your knees. There’s also something called a stabilizer, which looks like a small bicycle rack and allows you to lean hard to one side without toppling over while releasing the rock.

“I’d always watched the Olympics,” said Lee, who moved to New Hampshire from New York City about 22 years ago. “I finally said I need to throw a few stones.”

Curling is weird. It disappeared from the Olympics in 1924 and did not surface again as a medal event until 20 years ago. Through the past two decades, it’s been shown on tape delay at odd hours, competing with post-midnight infomercials for products like the Magic Bullet.

But the sport had a strange allure, attracting fans who enjoyed watching it without fully knowing what the heck was going on. While some of the players looked as though they were fighting a stubborn stain on the floor, did you really know why those sweepers swept? Did you know how to keep score? Did you know the sport’s background?

“I always wanted to curl, but it never existed around here in the 1980s and ’90s,” said Maida Kreis of Wolfeboro. “I saw the Olympics, but I don’t have a memory of trying to figure it out. It’s even more fun than I thought. It’s a blast.”

Kreis is a 51-year-old ballet dancer, and her pretzel-like flexibility was evident when she delivered her rock. “It helps me get low,” she told me.

“It’s amazing how they glide when they release it, how graceful they are,” said 38-year-old Lorie Taliento of Mirror Lake.

Taliento competes with her father and mother in the league, and the family first learned how to play from a relative who had joined a league in Massachusetts.

“Now I know the wording, the lingo, the technical terms,” Taliento said. “I’m really into it. I’m DVRing today’s matches to watch later. The U.S. is playing Norway.”

Knowing the Team USA curling schedule as the Olympics continue in South Korea says a lot. Data reveals that membership in the United States Curling Association has doubled to 20,000 over the last 15 years.

Gilford, Nashua, North Conway and Plymouth have leagues. The granite rocks cost about $300 each, so Gilford got creative and poured cement into old teapots to play.

The Wolfeboro league apparently has more high rollers, because the Lakes Region Curling Association, which began its fall and winter seasons in 2015, recently paid off its $28,000 debt for dozens of rocks for the approximately 50 players spread over nine teams.

Residents like Mike Spence, Rich Masse, Bud Booth, Hugh Crawford and Carl Crossley coordinated with Ethan Hipple, the director of Parks and Recreation in Wolfeboro and the manager at the local ice arena.

They all got help from David Gyger, who runs the ice arena at Plymouth State University, and before you could say, “Does anyone know the rules for this nutty sport?” about 50 people had come to an open house, ready to join.

From there, a learning process began. Members found out that the target is called the ‘house’ and the bull’s-eye is called the ‘button.’

They learned about scoring, tallied after each team has thrown all eight of its rocks. The team closest to the center of the button scores a point. A team scores a point for every rock it has closer to the button than the other team’s best placement.

Only one team can score per what is called an ‘end,’ the equivalent of an inning, and the top score accumulated per end is 8-0, known as a ‘snowman.’ The LRCA plays eight ends per game.

Want more? The ice is covered with water droplets, called ‘pebbles.’ Sweeping causes friction, which causes the pebbles to melt, which allows the rock to grab less ice and move farther and straighter on a film of water. If you want the rock to curl, don’t sweep.

Hooked?

The rock, which weighs between 38 and 44 pounds, must be released before you reach the ‘hog line.’ The sport was born in the 16th century in Scotland, and the best granite-producing quarries for rock-making are in Wales and Scotland.

More? Google it.

It’s time to turn to the Wolfeboro league and its players, who meet Sundays from 5 to 7 p.m. until March 18.

Denise Gallagher of Brookfield is one of the LRCA’s recruiters. She told me about twisting her wrist to make the rock curl and avoid other rocks. She loves curling.

“Sometimes you don’t want to go on a late Sunday afternoon,” Gallagher said. “But once you get here, the two hours fly by.”

Chris Johnson of Gilford is a 33-year-old restaurant manager who said sweeping is hard work.

“People don’t realize that you work up a sweat even though it’s 25 or 30 degrees in here,” Johnson told me.

Spence, one of the founders, said, “None of us knew anything about (curling), but it looked like an activity people could do.”

Those people, the ones competing in Wolfeboro on Frozen Sundays, are doubly excited about their hobby, because this is a first for the LRCA: Its season coincides with the Winter Olympics.

Masse, the LRCA president, is glued to his TV these days, amazed at the talent he sees in curling.

“We fall out of our chairs all the time watching some of those shots,” Masse said. “The finesse shots are just incredible.”

“My co-workers are enthralled by it,” said 58-year-old Bob Patterson of Gilford, a courier for Federal Express. “Now it’s like mainstream. It’s a sport on a roll.”

It’s also a sport that requires thought, strategy and a delicate touch. But nothing in curling resembles the superhuman skills needed in other sports, athleticism that jumps into our living rooms each night.

Who can relate to cross-country skiing for 19 miles? What about zipping downhill on skis at 90 mph?

“People watch (curling) and say anyone can do it,” Masse said. “And you know what? They can.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)