In the sport of curling, mental trumps muscle

Poulsbo curling team member Dick Prine prepares for the arrival of the stone, as the opposing team’s skip watches, during a February bonspiel.         - Courtesy
Poulsbo curling team member Dick Prine prepares for the arrival of the stone, as the opposing team’s skip watches, during a February bonspiel.
— image credit: Courtesy

POULSBO — Karl Ostheller of Poulsbo pushes forward off the hack and he and the heavy stone glide forward on the ice, setting into motion a series of events that will determine whether his team scores a point some 90 feet away. Two teammates stand by, ready to help guide the stone according to the skipper’s direction.

Ostheller is an amateur in this sport, though at this moment he has something in common with its heroes, like Postovar, Sugahara and Baird ... Godfrey, Noble and Hardy.

But Ostheller has no illusions of grandeur; there’s no medal, no notoriety outside this rink other than bragging rights. His gritty play might win him the trophy for Most Spirited Player. A careless or too-speedy release of the stone could earn him the Horse’s Ass Award.

This is curling — specifically, Lions Club curling. It’s an international competition of sorts, with Poulsbo’s team traveling once a year to Campbell River, B.C. to compete against Lions from Black Creek, Campbell River, Comox and elsewhere.

It’s fun — Poulsbo Lion Dick Prine jokes that the training regimen consists of drinking a few beers “to keep up with the Canadians” — but it’s competitive and the Poulsbo team is at a disadvantage.

The Poulsbo Lions team goes into the annual tournament without practice, because the only curling club in the area, Granite Curling Club at 130th and Aurora  Avenue  in  Seattle, is heavily booked (Granite Curling Club has had more national champions than any other club in the U.S.). Granite Curling Club’s Brian Morris said you have to be a member to be able to practice here. But even with membership, there are only some weekend times available; evenings are taken up with league play.

“We used to be a 200-member club,” Morris said. “We’re now approaching 600. Interest has grown recently; we’ve certainly doubled in the last 10 years.”

On the playing surface — it’s called a sheet — the game requires accuracy, strategy and teamwork. Here’s the game in a nutshell, according to the Granite Curling Club:

Curling originated in Scotland, where it has been played since at least 1511. It’s been an Olympic sport since 1998.

The sheet is 138 feet long by about 14 feet wide, with a target area, or house, at each end of the sheet. The curling stone is made of polished Scottish granite, weighs 42 to 44 pounds, and has a handle. A curling team consists of four players — the Lead, the Second, the Third (or Vice-Skip), and the Skip. The Skip is the captain and chief strategist for the team. Each game consists of eight ends, curling’s version of a baseball inning. Each player delivers, or pushes, two stones in each end, alternating with his or her counterpart on the opposing team.

When the stone is delivered down the ice, the delivering team’s players sweep in front of the stone, using a broom specifically designed for curling. The sweeping melts the surface of the ice slightly, which can alter the speed and the direction of the stone. The opposing team can knock your stone out of contention, like knocking a leaner off the stake in horseshoes. The team with stones closest to the center of the house scores points for that end.

Mental trumps muscle in this game; you don’t want to push the stone too hard, because a 44-pound stone on ice carries a lot of inertia, Prine said. As the game goes on, the condition of the ice changes, affecting how you deliver and sweep.

“What got me into it was the idea that, yeah, there are a few physical skills to learn, but it’s not impossible to learn them,” Morris said. “It’s really accessible to a lot of different types of people. You don’t have to be able to jump or run a three-minute mile. You can learn to play it and get good at it if you play enough. If you improve enough, you can play competitively. I like to say that it’s the easiest pass to the Olympics.”

Two notable U.S. curlers live in Hansville: Joan Fish and her sister-in-law, Aija Edwards.

Fish, 65, is a graphic designer by trade who started curling in 1973. Edwards, 62, is a bookkeeper who started curling in 1975. They competed in the U.S. Senior National Championships in 2011 and won the title in 2009. They placed sixth in the World Senior Championships in 2009  and second in the 1989 U.S. Mixed Championship. They missed going to the 1988 Olympics by one shot, and placed sixth and third in the 1987 and 1980 Women’s World Championship.

The Poulsbo Lions curlers have hauled in their share of honors, though not of Fish and Edwards’ level. At the Campbell River Bonspiel (a Scottish Gaelic word for league match), Poulsbo’s finest won the award for having traveled the longest distance. Prine and teammate Scott Puhn have each won the Most Spirited Award three times. Prine believes he bungled enough shots this year to qualify for the Horse’s Ass Award, but the trophy couldn’t be found.

Prine said the team’s equipment consists of a curling stone with a Lions Club label (in competition, stones belonging to the Campbell River Curling Club are used), and a copy of “Curling for Dummies.”

Obviously, the Lions are in it for the camaraderie and the chance for international fellowship. It’s a relationship that started when Prine was visiting the Campbell River area during a Canada Day celebration and was invited to the curling club by some Lions there. That led to a team invitation.

“We’ve been playing now for eight years,” he said.

There’s a website that sells top-notch curling gear, including clothing “to keep you looking hot in the club house.”

Prine doesn’t think stylish curling wear would help his team. “I can’t say we look that good,” he joked.

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