Following a historic gold medal run in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, the nation was “swept” with a sport that involved, well … sweeping.
Curling, one of the world’s oldest team sports, had often been overlooked by Americans who never really excelled in the sport until the underdog U.S. men’s curling team defeated Sweden with a score of 10-7 in the gold medal final to win the United States its first-ever Olympic curling title.
Curling fever was perhaps enhanced by the fact that our team of unlikely heroes did not necessarily fit the mold of your typical Olympic athletes, making the sport seem accessible to anyone.
As interest in the sport grew, curling clubs began forming nationwide. At the time, the closest club to the Morgantown area was in Pittsburgh.
In 2019, local resident Jeff Ryan “kind of had curling on the brain” and would travel to Pittsburgh with a group of friends to practice the sport.
At the time, the Pittsburgh club was using a local ice arena and had the basic equipment, stones and brooms available for use. The problem for Ryan was they were driving three hours round trip for an hour and half of curling.
“I just wondered why we couldn’t do something like that in Morgantown,” Ryan said.
He decided to do a GoFundMe to raise enough money to start a local club and had overwhelming support.
Now knowing the interest was there, he contacted USA Curling, which he said was very enthusiastic about expanding the sport following the success on the world stage.
Soon after, West Virginia’s first and only official curling club was born, and Ryan drove to the USA Curling headquarters in Wisconsin — where they provided the rental stones and equipment needed to start the Morgantown Curling Club.
Official curling stones, sometimes called rocks, are traditionally made of granite. But not just any granite. To be official stones, the granite must come from a quarry on the island of Ailsa Craig off Scotland’s Ayrshire Coast.
Ryan was able to obtain enough stones from USA Curling for three “sheets,” or playing surfaces. The playing surface in curling is 150 feet long and 16 feet, 5 inches wide. Each team needs eight stones, so 16 stones are needed per sheet.
The ice is set up so teams can play in both directions, meaning the surface is symmetrical with a “house” at each end. The “house” resembles a bullseye, and the goal is to finish with your team’s stone or stones closest to the center, or button.
Four years later, the Morgantown Curling Club now meets regularly at the Morgantown Ice Arena through the fall and winter months.
Ryan said membership has grown to around 15 paid full memberships with a core group of 12-14 people who come as often as they can. At the ice arena, they now have dedicated houses set under the ice compared to previously having to draw the houses each time they met.
However, some years have been better than others as interest in the sport grows and falls.
“It’s feast or famine,” Ryan said. “We’re in a non-Olympic year. When it’s not on TV and not on people’s minds, it’s tough.”
I recently joined the Morgantown Curling Club for a learn-to-curl session and scrimmage. Beginners are welcome anytime the club meets. Those a little more familiar with the game can join the club anytime for scrimmages.
Curling veterans Kevin and Heather Barclay, who have around 20 years of curling experience, took the reins with our small group of five beginners and went over the basic rules of the game while pointing out various safety issues to be wary of while on the ice.
Heather showed us the proper techniques for shooting the stones and how to position them to make them curl, or curve, for them to end in the position you are aiming for, or at least ideally aiming for.
Kevin acted as our “skip,” which is like a team captain and serves as the strategist of a team, telling other players where to position their shots for the best chances to score points or block the opposing team from scoring. A “vice-skip” takes over that role when the skip is shooting.
The club also provided Teflon foot pads that allowed us to easily slide down the ice while launching our shots – just like the pros who wear special shoes with a Teflon sole.
While the professionals make it look effortless as they push themselves and the stone down the ice, it is a lot harder than it may seem. In fact, the majority of our small beginner group ended up just falling on the ice with the stone stopping well short of the house.
With a little practice, we all improved and were introduced to the purpose of the “broom.” When a player takes a shot, team members can use the brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone, which breaks surface tension, causing the ice to melt a bit. Depending on how hard or soft players sweep, they are able to control the speed and curl of the stone.
I don’t know if we were actually helping the stone with our beginner sweeps, but it was a lot of fun to run down the ice with the stone, sweeping vigorously in its path as our skip Kevin yelled instructions on how hard or soft to sweep.
After a bit more practice, we played a short scrimmage match. We had enough time to play two “ends.” An end is similar to a baseball inning. Each end consists of 16 stones, eight for each team, with each player shooting twice. Teams can score at the conclusion of each end and games consist of ten ends.
Surprisingly, the practice paid off and each team scored a point, which felt like a real accomplishment given we were all falling on our faces and barely sending the stone 30 feet just an hour before.
While everyone in our group that evening was physically able to play traditionally, the Barclay’s talked about the inclusiveness of the sport and how the stone can be shot a variety of ways, including from a standing position using a curling stick, allowing even those with disabilities the chance to enjoy the game.
Ryan also spoke about the sport’s versatility.
“When I curl up in Pittsburgh there are people in wheelchairs, there are people that cannot bend over – they curl with a curling stick. There are 80-year-old people on the ice curling, so it’s really a sport for every one of every ability,” he said. “You don’t have to be able to slide 30 feet on the ice to be a good curler. Getting the rock down to the other end is really enough to have a good time at the sport.”
After the session, I not only felt like I had a basic sense of the sport, but was eager to participate again – and still am.
Ryan said in the past few years, the Pittsburgh club has built a dedicated curling facility and has begun to host “bonspiels,” or bracketed curling tournaments, where the Morgantown club can compete with other clubs.
According to Ryan, it would take a lot of capital to build a dedicated facility here in Morgantown and he doesn’t really foresee the club generating enough money to do so anytime in the next decade.
“We will just have to be the best club we can be with what we have available,” he said. He does hope to obtain more stones that would enable the club to set up four sheets at the ice arena and allow them to have bonspiels right here in Morgantown.
The club tries to meet once every two weeks or at least once a month while the rink has ice, but are at the mercy of the hockey schedules and WVU football schedule.
“Where you see gaps in the schedule, those are hockey dates or football games where no one is going to want to come to curling anyway,” Ryan said.
The next time the Morgantown Curling Club will meet will be on Nov. 24 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
All of the club’s scheduled sessions offer “Learn to Curl” classes which are $50 with all equipment provided. Experienced curlers who do not need any instruction can join the club for scrimmage sessions for $40.
Additional information about the club and how to register for sessions can be found on their website morgantowncurlingclub.com or by visiting the Morgantown Curling Club Facebook page. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.