February 19, 2014 at 8:58 am

Bob Wojnowski

Wojo is down - err falling down - for curling's cold stone challenge

Curling with Wojo
Curling with Wojo: Detroit News columnist catches Olympic fever -- or something like that.

Ferndale — The beer kegs were stored against the wall, along the ice, like silver medals. Right then, I knew this was the Olympic sport for me.

Some competitors wore bright red pants. Some wore goofy hats with fluffy balls on top. Some shouted unintelligibly, then laughed. This is curling, the most Everyman (and Everywoman) Olympic Sport Ever, the game that looks so simple, even flabby media types think they can do it.

That was the challenge, and I accepted it happily. And by “happily,” I mean “reluctantly.” As someone who gets a decent cardio workout taking the stairs to the basement to stack clothes on the treadmill, this was new territory. But really, how difficult could it be? Did I mention the kegs? And the silly brooms?

Nobody thinks they can do what a ski jumper or an ice dancer or a pink-eyed Bob Costas does, but everyone thinks they can play shuffleboard on ice, right?

“It’s not like shuffleboard,” curling instructor Mike Grudzinski said, kind of sternly.

“You gotta get that out of your head,” fellow instructor Michele Falvey said, equally sternly.

“You’re gonna fall,” Grudzinski said.

Oh, please. No I won’t.

“Yes, you will,” he insisted. “Everyone falls their first time.”

Here I was at the Detroit Curling Club in Ferndale, arguing about my ability to not fall, suddenly not sure I would win the argument. It’s one of five curling clubs in Michigan, one of about 135 in the U.S. The sport is celebrated in Canada, enjoyed in most frozen countries and embraced every four years in America.

It’s a weekday afternoon and the place is teeming with curlers, and I’m fighting the urge to make a lame hair salon joke. You’ve probably seen the sport by accident, flipping around on CBC or during late-night NBC coverage of Olympic curling, which culminates Friday.

It is strangely riveting. There’s a 140-foot sheet of ice with four people on each side, and they slide a 44-pound stone toward a dot on the other end in a manner that doesn’t remotely resemble shuffleboard. Not at all! For one thing, shuffleboard is played in the sun, near umbrellas, by people ages 75-84.

Near as I can tell, this is what curlers are trying to do:

■Knock the other team’s stone out of the way to get theirs closer to the dot to score.

■Block the other team’s stone.

■Not fall.

Now, if I were truly a dedicated columnist, I’d be in Sochi writing about the powerful Canadian curlers, or the disappointing U.S. team. But Sochi wasn’t an option as soon as I heard about the scandalous bathroom and shower curtain situations. So I headed out to discover what the fuss was all about, and to see if my muscles had atrophied beyond the point of usefulness.

'It's a fun game'

I found a passionate, engaging teacher in Grudzinski, who has been at the Detroit Curling Club since it moved to its current location in 2002, and now has nearly 300 members. He filled me in on the basics of curling, how it was invented in Scotland, how it became an Olympic sport in 1998, how people of all ages and genders can play, how it’s a myth that curlers smoke cigarettes and drink beer between shots.

Actually, I was informed they’re not “shots” but “deliveries.” Along with my intrepid radio co-host Jamie Samuelsen, we were required to sign a liability waiver, and I understood why. Imagine the liability in tossing a couple hundred pounds of sports writer flesh onto an icy surface littered with stones and brooms.

“People see it on TV and don’t grasp how hard it is,” Grudzinski said. “You’ll be in positions you’ve never been in before. You’ll use muscles you didn’t even know you had.”

First of all, my muscles and I have a fine working relationship — I feed them, they keep working. Second, my favorite position is the reclining one, not the splayed-on-the-ice one.

Curling’s popularity continues to rise, with clubs in Texas, Arizona and Florida, where we can only hope gangs of curlers and shuffleboarders battle for turf. The way Grudzinski and Falvey described it, curling has elements of bowling (for the “curling” or hooking action), chess (for the strategy), billiards (for the shooting angles) and golf (for the beer).

“I think the appeal is, people look at the extreme sports and say, ‘I could never do that,’ ” Grudzinski said. “But you look at the people curling and they’re not buff athletes. They look like normal people.”

I encountered numerous non-buff normal people at the Detroit Curling Club, including a group of GM workers out for a team-building exercise. As they got off the ice, they seemed exhilarated, or exhausted.

“I didn’t know there was so much to it,” said Mike Carter of Clarkston. “I’d just watch these guys from Finland throwing these stupid pucks down the ice in the Olympics, right? That’s not what it was. It’s a fun game.”

His buddy Brad Rafalski (I know what you’re thinking, but no, he’s not related to former Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom) said sweeping is the hardest part. That’s the furious scraping to create friction that momentarily melts the ice, allowing the stone to slide as much as 10 feet farther. I don’t mind saying it’s by far the dumbest-looking part of curling, and as I’d learn, the most strenuous.

Having sufficiently mocked all the amusing elements, it was time to put on a pair of rubbery “grippers” over my sneakers, grab a broom and start sweeping. Fall? Fail? Yeah, right.

'All about socializing'

“OK, you need to get in the yoga lunge position,” Grudzinski said. “Squat down, pull up your hips, then push off with your thighs for the delivery.”

What is this, a birthing class? Wait a minute, do people ever get hurt doing this?

“It requires a lot of balance or you’ll tip over,” he said. For a beginning curler, the thing that ends up hurting the most is your knee. Or if you fall wrong, you can hit your wrist.”

It’s unclear if Keith Appling and his Spartans teammates have been secretly curling.

It was time to step on the ice, which is slightly pebbled to help the granite stone slide. The stone, also known as the “rock,” has a handle, thankfully. You put one foot in the “hack,” which is like a starter’s block, and the other on a Teflon “slider,” which is like a demonic slippery sandal. You place a hand on a plastic device called the stabilizer, and then you assume the yoga lunge position and attempt to pass the stone, something I’ve done before in a much more painful way.

Jamie went first and did just fine, although he had a distinct advantage in that he’s wiry, also known as “not fat.” Me? Maybe I wasn’t listening to the instructions because when I glided out of that #&*%# lunge position, everything slid nicely along the ice, including my knees, belly and both elbows.

Let the record show, I did not fall. I splatted. And the stone glided about 20 feet.

What did I do wrong?

“I think you have to work on the amount of force you’re pushing off with,” Grudzinski said, slightly sympathetic. “And you have to let go of your fear.”

Lunge, push, delivery, oh, baby. I tried three more times and didn’t get much better, sort of stumbling onto the ice each time. The sweeping part is even more taxing, with your arms moving so violently, you almost lose your breath, like it’s an actual workout or something. You’re sliding while scrubbing in front of a moving stone, and even in the chilly rink, I felt the familiar creep of sweat.

That was enough for me, enough to know this Olympic curiosity is tougher than it appears, and with more practice, probably as fun as it appears. Especially when the kegs get tapped — only after the event, of course.

“The thing that’s great about curling is, even at the competitive levels it’s all about socializing,” Grudzinski said. “The winning team buys the losing team the first round. And then the losing team buys the second round. And so on.”

And so on and so on. I began to understand curling’s crazy appeal, and someday I hope to do it splat-free and pain-free. Until then, I’ll work diligently on the socializing part.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski takes his turn sliding the stone during a curling event at the Detroit Curling Club. / Clarence Tabb Jr / Detroit News
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