WAYLAND — A brief obsession with the 2010 Norwegian curling team’s pants — a fascination so deep that I, and 476,000 others, still like a page dedicated to them on Facebook — and a curiosity that would manifest every four years when the sport appeared on television formed all of my curling knowledge.
Before I took to the ice at Broomstones Curling Club, I thought it would be enough.
“They call it chess on ice,” Andy Willis, the coach of both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard club curling teams, warned me. “It’s a mental game.”
Weighed down by both the 42-pound granite stone in my right hand and the pressure of performing in front of athletes my own age who would soon be competing at the national level, I let my left knee slip out from under me and drag along the surface of the ice, having released from my lunge too early for fear my thighs would start burning if I crouched for much longer.
I was proud of myself — the rock (as the stone is sometimes called) had made sufficient progress down the ice, to the other end of the sheet — but Kelsey Becker, an MIT senior who had volunteered to be my mentor, said otherwise.
Dragging my knee would ruin the ice, she explained, leaning down and pointing out the pebbled texture of the sheet beneath us, which is created by spraying purified water from end to end.
Clearly, I had a lot to learn about the sport, which the US Curling Association reports is played by more than 22,000 individuals across the country at 190 member clubs.
But I had found the right classroom in Broomstones, where the MIT and Harvard curling teams were practicing ahead of the College National Championship, which will be held at the club this weekend.
I had found the right teacher in Becker, a member of MIT curling’s executive board who will be competing at the national competition for the third time this year. MIT hasn’t placed since 2016, when the team finished third; Harvard placed fourth in 2017.
“It’s mostly about having fun,” Becker said. “Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t, and there’s a score at the end.”
That score at the end, I learned, is based on how both teams perform in each end. An end is complete when each team has thrown its eight stones, and there are 10 ends in one game. The object of the game is have the most stones closest to the button, or the center of the circle at the other side of the ice. The team who threw the stone closest to the button earns a point, and that team earns a point for every subsequent stone thrown closer to the button than the other team. A perfect score for an end is 8-0.
Becker pulled another rock from the collection on our left, positioned herself in the hack (the plastic on the ice where you push off from) and glided out. Her knee didn’t touch the ice, and she sent her stone smoothly down to land toward the middle of the circles at the other end. I looked at my throw, which had only been stopped when it had slammed into the boards at the other end.
“It’s a release, not a throw,” Becker advised.
She walked to the other end of sheet, where for my next throw, she assumed the role of traffic director, pointing out her arms to show me which way to curl the rock, the action that gives the sport its name.
“It’s not like bocce, or shuffleboard,” she explained.
It was nice of Becker to explain this to me, but I was stuck trying to focus on not falling, and releasing the stone at the same time. I chalked up my struggle with these nuances to the physics involved in the sport.
Of course, I thought, if my teacher was about to graduate from MIT, she had that whole science thing going for her, where I hadn’t taken a physical science class since my junior year of high school, and have no plans to do so anytime soon.
But Becker is double-majoring in comparative media studies and management, so that theory was out the window.
I threw one more rock, and Becker was satisfied. Back in my end, she handed me a “broom” that looked more like a Swiffer Wet Jet.
“People always ask me how I curl in a T-shirt,” she laughed. “It’s the sweeping. I got a concussion from sweeping once.”
I had no time to inquire about her head injury, pocketing the possible, albeit surprising correlation between CTE and curling as something to look into later. Becker bent down in the hack and pushed off. I jogged up alongside her and listened to her instructions to look forward and hold the broom on one side of my body, and as I was processing, she had one more direction for me.
And mentally, I was no longer on the ice, but 20 miles east in my Boston apartment.
A few months ago, I came home from work and started eating Neapolitan ice cream from the carton. A spoonful of chocolate fell onto the floor, but I didn’t notice until it had dried, and exhausted, I decided it could wait.
When I finally got around to mopping the kitchen (and it was too far after this incident that I’m willing to admit in writing), it took some extra power to ease the ice cream off of the vinyl tile – crouched down, two hands toward the base of the mop, all of my strength poured into scrubbing until the beige was brown no longer.
I was nearly defeated by the ice cream on my floor, and was experiencing the same while clearing the path for a slow-moving piece of granite.
Back in Broomstones, on the opposite end of the ice from Becker, I straightened, breathlessly, and stared back at her, leaning the broom in the crook of my arm and massaging my right forearm with my left hand.
I smiled weakly at my instructor and pushed through a few more practice ends.
The throwing became easier. The sweeping never did.
After, Willis gave me a tour of a storage room below ice level, pointing out the brackets of curling leagues at Broomstones, where participants range from first-graders to senior citizens.
“If you haven’t started curling by the time you’re 12, your chance to make it to the Olympics decreases,” Willis said. “If you don’t start by the time you’re 15, forget it.”
But Becker, who is from North Dakota, started curling as a sophomore in college. Here she was, preparing to lead her team to a national title.
I started to think about the possibilities.
Maybe it wasn’t too late. And why would I have to stop at Nationals? I could defy the odds, and live out the dreams of Olympic glory that had, at least every four years, dotted my childhood and everyone else’s. Maybe I’d even get to wear a pair of cool pants, like the Norwegians of 2010, and every winter Olympiad since.
Then I remembered the sweeping, and the ice cream on my kitchen floor.
With a new appreciation for the sport, I’ll just cheer the curlers on from the sideline this weekend (and three years from now, on television) instead.Jenna Ciccotelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.