warrior curling
Image: Pete Stone

LEAVE IT TO A COUNTRY that dreamed up such wacky sports as caber tossing (chucking 18-foot-tall pieces of timber across the lawn) and hammer throwing (chucking 16-pound steel balls across the lawn) to conceive of a sport like curling. Yes, thanks to Scotland, grown men and women worldwide now embrace a sport that requires them to send a 42-pound puck known as a “stone” skidding across the ice with little more than a broom to guide its path. But while the Scots are notorious oddballs who enjoy delicacies like haggis and blood pudding, explaining how the sport has captured the hearts of thousands of baseball-loving and apple-pie-eating Americans is a bit more challenging.

Until the 1990s, curling was played mainly in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin (plenty of cold weather and not a lot of anything else to do). But, perhaps inspired by its ugly-duckling charm, Americans flocked to the sport after its prime-time TV debut in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games. “Curling clubs were overwhelmed with calls before the Olympics had even ended,” says Terry Kolesar, communications manager for the Wisconsin-based United States Curling Association. Kolesar now counts more than 13,000 registered American curlers, nearly 20 percent of whom joined in the last five years. Clubs have even sprouted up as far south as Texas and Arizona.

Today, more than 1.5 million people in 46 countries have picked up their brooms and hit the ice. Just north of the border in Canada (where curling will once again appear in Vancouver, British Columbia’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games), the sport has become a national obsession, ranking second only to hockey in popularity.

Maybe that’s because one doesn’t need the physique of a hockey player—or the skates, for that matter—to tackle curling. One should, however, come prepared to do more than just stand around sweeping a broom, according to Doug Schaak, founder of Portland’s Evergreen Curling Club, which meets twice weekly for league games at the Lloyd Center. Schaak, a Multnomah Bible College English professor, grew up playing the sport in North Dakota, where his father curled competitively. Today he fields teams for competitions in eight tournaments—bonspiels, in curling parlance—against other clubs throughout the Pacific Northwest each year.

“You’re actually sweating a lot out there,” says Schaak. “It’s far more physically demanding than it looks; you’re always moving when you’re on the ice.”

In fact, the constant sweeping motion works the pecs and triceps, and many first-timers are surprised that such a seemingly simplistic sport could also require flexibility, balance and endurance. In order to skillfully slide those stones, curlers must be able to glide along on the ice for 30 feet or more while maintaining a quad-burning deep knee bend. “You’re just constantly flexing those big thigh muscles,” says Schaak. League matches, which consist of eight “ends”—similar to innings in baseball—can last up to two hours, and players wind up shuffling, sweeping and lunging their way back and forth across the length of the Lloyd Center’s 175-foot-long rink several times over the course of a night.