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Charm of the curl

UC College of Engineering graduate gets swept away by curling

by Elizabeth DePompei

Though I knew perfectly well that my wobbly legs weren’t meant for the ice – picture Bambi without the help of hind legs – I couldn’t resist a night of curling. 

After all, the centuries-old sport out of Scotland only gets more popular with each Winter Olympics. 

So when University of Cincinnati alum and Cincinnati Curling Club treasurer Dave Forcum invited to me to a “social curl” at the Indian Hill Winter Club in Camp Dennison, Ohio, I took him up on it.  

As I prepared for the embarrassment that comes with most of my athletic endeavors – seventh-grade cheerleading tryouts included - I tried to focus on what I could control, like the integrity of my wardrobe. 

“We’ve seen a lot of jeans get split wide open,” I was warned. 

Needing no further excuse to wear stretchy pants in public, I showed up in my best athletic gear, ready to face the ice alongside 30 or so curling newbies. Forcum and several other seasoned curlers would be our instructors for the night, showing us the basics before setting us loose for a few hours of good, clean curling fun.

Forcum, an engineer at Duke Energy, where he also co-oped during his time at UC, started curling in 2010, right around the Vancouver Winter Olympics. A few years later, he volunteered to serve as treasurer for the Cincinnati Curling Club, Cincinnati’s first and only curling club, founded in 2012. 

But before curling clubs started sprouting across the country, Forcum, Eng ’06 , was limited to watching the sport on TV with his college roommate, a fellow curling enthusiast.

Together they watched the world’s best Olympic curlers glide polished 40-pound granite stones 150 feet across a sheet of ice with a gentle turn of the wrist. They were captured by the sweepers' ability to use physical force and a bit of science to manipulate momentum and direct stones into the “house,” the circular target marked on ice. Standing in the house is the “skip,” the team member who directs the team’s strategy.

“If you watch the professionals play, they are so good at it,” says Forcum. “They throw their stone, it’s going to hit two others, and it’s going to go exactly where they want it to go.” 

Some describe the sport as “chess on ice,” a game that requires a mental demeanor equal to the brute of a linebacker. It should be no surprise then that curling attracts the brilliant brains of engineers. 

“We do get a lot of engineers who play, a lot of computer scientists,” says Jonathan Penney, Cincinnati Curling Club president. “I think most engineers are kind of analytical, and there’s something to that.” 

At the end of each “end,” the curling equivalent to an inning, both four-member teams huddle in the house to determine which stones are closest to the “button,” the sweet spot in the center of the house. The team with the closest stone wins the end and earns additional points for each stone closer than the opposition’s closest stone. 

Without expectations of scoring any points that night, I put grippers over my shoes — an advantage Bambi didn’t have — and hit the ice shuffling. Before I had time to overthink the logistics — which inevitably ends in confusion between left and right limbs — I was bent down and in the “hack,” a placeholder for a curler’s dominant foot, similar to a starting block in track and field. To my left stood a wooden stand with a handle to balance on, something you won’t see in competitive curling where experienced athletes balance with a broom.

I could hear what my instructor and the other newbies were telling me to do:

“Squat down and plant your right foot.”

“Hold the stone’s handle with your right hand and grip the stand with your left hand.”

“Lean forward and slide back on your left foot.”

“Push forward off of your right foot and glide.”

“Gently turn the stone and release.”

What I did is a different story, and maybe even a different sport.

I slid forward and backward, but in the wrong order and more times than I needed to. My legs didn’t immediately give out, but by the time I released the stone, I was sitting on the ice with my legs twisted beneath me. The stone went forward, which I suppose is better than the direction I’ve been known to launch a bowling ball, but it didn’t stop anywhere close to the button. 

After a few more attempts that looked strikingly similar to my first, I tried my hand at sweeping. As far as I was concerned, I then could feel like I was, at least, doing something significant without any proof that I wasn’t. If I managed to keep pace with the stone, I was happy. If I didn’t fall, I was lucky.

On the sheet next to me, Forcum instructed a group of eight or so people, introducing them to the pastime he has come to love. I watched as he ran between the hack and the house and cheered on his students. It was clear that not only does he love the sport, he loves sharing it with others.

Later, Forcum checked in on me, perhaps knowing that I understood what he and club president Penney had been trying to explain to me.

I understood that as accessible as the sport is – even I can push a polished stone down the ice – there was a level of skill and finesse that can only come with dedication. But what I understood most was that whatever your skill level or interest, curling really is for everyone; from brilliant engineers to writers with two left feet.

“Every story’s kind of got the same incredible, eye-opening ‘wow’ to the sport,” says Penney. “They thought it looked easy on TV, they came out and tried it, and it wasn’t as easy as they thought.”

Later, in front of a crackling hearth in the main room, I mingled with other Cincinnati Curling Club members. I met Darby, Forcum’s wife whom he met while at UC. Darby, DAAP ’06, is a graphic designer year-round and a curler in the winter. I asked her about the newly minted logo she designed for the club.

The logo, stitched on Darby’s official club jacket, depicts a sprawling bridge beneath a "house" with a winning stone in the middle. The bridge, supported by a broom at each end, is meant to connect the club’s Kentucky and Ohio members, but any curler will tell you that it extends much farther.

“I’ve met teams where there were two people from Cleveland, one person from Fort Wayne and one person from Chicago, and they all just said, ‘Hey, we need a team’ and came together,” says Forcum. 

Penney grew up on the east coast of Canada and learned to curl on Prince Edward Island. His wife worked for Procter & Gamble in Canada and, as Penney says is so often the case with P&G, “All roads lead to Cincinnati.” He’s not the only Canadian to bring his curling expertise to Cincinnati by way of P&G, and he probably won’t be the last.

As of this year, the club has 23 members. Forcum is hoping to expand its membership with a series of “Learn to Curl” classes and a competitive spring league, both beginning in March.

While Forcum is grateful for ice time at Indian Hill Winter Club, he would like to see a dedicated curling facility in Cincinnati in the near future.“Winter used to be cold, dark and depressing,” says Forcum. “It will be even better when we can get more ice time in the winter.”

A dedicated facility would allow for more events year-round, something any curler, whether a pro or a newbie, could benefit from.

The day after my introduction to curling, I wondered if my sore muscles and bruised knees meant that I could get better, too. Were these the battle marks of a future Olympian? Perhaps, like Forcum and so many others, I had been swept away by the charm of the curl.

Elizabeth DePompei is a UC journalism student and writing intern with UC Magazine.

Watch a curling demonstration

Granite stone for curling

Image by Wyoming_Jackrabbit used with permission from Flickr Creative Commons: http://bit.ly/1olcApH

Cincinnati Curling Club member Shawn O'Connor demonstrates curling as part of a "social curl" event at the Indian Hill Winter Club in Camp Dennison, Ohio. Video/Elizabeth DePompei