- By JIMMY GOLEN, AP Sports Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
(02-01) 06:01 PST , (AP) —
The only TV coverage of curling’s Olympic debut was from David Letterman’s mom. Eight years later, the sport once miscast as “extreme shuffleboard” will come into the house with regular broadcasts, anchored by a telegenic U.S. women’s team that could leave Turin with the first American curling medal since it became an Olympic event in Nagano.
“Winning a medal would be unbelievable for us — any medal,” said Cassie Johnson, the 24-year-old skip who joins her older sister, Jamie, on the American team for the 2006 Olympics. “It would also be good for the sport.”
Although popular in Scotland, which claims to have invented curling, and in Canada, which claims to have invented ice, curling remains on the fringe in the United States. Apart from scattered clubs around Minnesota and Wisconsin, few Americans paid it any attention — until Salt Lake City.
Sidenote: Did Canada claimed to invent ice? Really? Wow!
With its frenzied sweeping and clattering rocks, curling was the breakout hit of the 2002 Games. But the attention came with a cute, almost condescending tone that underplayed the physical nature of the sport and put it in a leisure class with shuffleboard and bocce.
Still, American clubs reported increased membership, longtime curlers had trouble getting ice time and the quarry in Scotland that makes the best rocks worked to meet the demand.
“That’s our No. 1 goal, to get people out there and trying it,” said Pete Fenson, the skip of the U.S. men’s team. “Any kind of exposure that the game can get is going to help. That’s why we see an explosion with the Olympics, because people see it on TV, they watch, they call their local clubs and they want to participate.”
The Olympians didn’t need to be convinced.
“We’ve kind of made curling our dream,” said Maureen Brunt, the lead thrower on the American women’s team. “If other people like it, it validates the fact that we’ve put everything else on hold.”
And like it they do. Curling tickets for Turin have been among the fastest to sell, and organizers say Americans will dominate the crowd.
That puts an added responsibility on the U.S. teams: They’re not just there for themselves, but with the sport’s future resting on their shoulders. Fenson knows that it’s not enough for Americans to watch the curling in Turin; they have to see Americans succeed there.
“We think that it has something to do with how well the teams do over there,” he said. “I think we realize that, but I don’t think anybody’s feeling any extra pressure because of it. Once they try it is usually when people start to like the game. They appreciate what it takes to play the game and to play well, and how demanding it is.”
To make an impact, Fenson’s rink will have to overcome defending Olympic champion Paal Trulsen and a Canadian squad led by Brad Gushue. Sweden, Switzerland and Britain also figure to be among the contenders.
“There’s a lot of parity in the field. There’s 10 teams. The majority are very even,” he said. “We’ve faced the best European teams. We know what to expect. We’re much more comfortable in that setting than we were three years ago.”
The American women were the only team to beat the Swedes at the world championships last year, but lost to them in the finals; Anette Norberg will skip for Sweden again in Turin. Scottish housewife Rhona Martin is back at the Games four years after throwing the “Stone of Destiny” to win Britain’s first winter gold since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero in 1984.
And Canada, which has a gold and a bronze in the only two Olympic competitions, is always a threat.
The U.S. women are poised to make a splash, led by the blonde and bashful Johnson sisters. They’ve already attracted the attention of one Olympic sponsor, which brought them to New York for a demonstration in Central Park and a media schedule that included 30 satellite TV interviews in one morning.
Just eight years after CBS dismissed the possibility of televised curling — except as a late-night punch line — NBC plans to broadcast 26 matches, 15 of them live. For Johnson’s team rink, that means a future with fewer mocking invitations to sweep up their neighbors’ kitchens and fewer quizzical stares when they tell their less-Minnesotan friends that they curl.
“People think it’s easy and that anybody can do it,” said U.S. second Jessica Schultz, noting that a curler handles a 42-pound stone and walks almost 3 miles during one match. “We want people to try it and see how hard it is, and to understand why we’re out there sweeping the ice.”