Crazy 'Bout Curling!

Knoxville's most unlikely sport puts competitors on ice to throw rocks at houses

Two men in street clothes, one wearing black Converse sneakers, have already paced across the ice, backwards, with side packs and hoses spewing some sort of spray, looking like the Ghost Busters. Clusters of others, some in sweats, some in jeans, one with a brilliant orange helmet, hover over carefully arranged groups of eight... things, things that are smaller than a bread box and look like smushed bowling balls with tire tread perimeters and giant tiddlywinks with handles in primary colors on top. "Let's rock on," a disembodied voice floats over the ice, without inflection.

A man slides several yards, crouching like a catcher, swinging one of the tiddlywinks out and away, staring straight ahead. A girl and another man start sliding, too, passing the first man, she in a side to side skipping motion, he with one foot planted and the other propelling, as if he doesn't notice his scooter is gone. They resemble fussy Cinderellas taking after imaginary dust, swatting back and forth near—but not on—the bright yellow missile with broom-handled brushes that look like chalkboard erasers at the bottom. The tiddlywink stops, the sliders veer off. The ritual is repeated by three others, then three more. "Good," comes a quiet voice, followed by "Nicely done," and "Huup."

And then one man throws himself forward on one knee, zooming, right arm thrust ahead, almost belly-flopping, flinging the tiddlywink and falling forward, still skimming the ice, finishing off with an arm-fully-extended flourish that looks like he's pleading for the last two drops of the world's water.

But that's not what he wants. He's the Great Smoky Mountain Curling Club's Jeff Peck, and like everyone on the rink at the Ice Chalet in Bearden, he's spending a couple of hours on a Sunday night trying to score some points by helping his team's "rocks"—the tiddlywink things—make it into a "house" (a ring marked on the opposite end of the ice) and stay there without getting knocked out by the opponents. (The fall session started a couple of weeks ago; the winter will begin in January.)

Even in this odd scenario, though, Peck is considered unusual. "It's an unorthodox delivery," says Board of Directors member Ed Shipstead, an older gent with a calm Minnesota accent. Most curlers attach a piece of Teflon or similar material to their shoe so they can slide along the ice—Peck wears a specially designed "slider" on his knee. "When he moved here, he was coming from the prestigious Utica Curling Club in New York. He called me to ask if our club would let him wear a knee slider. I said, ‘Do they allow you to curl that way at Utica? If so, we will do whatever they do."

Not many clubs allow the knee slider, says Sandra Takata, club VP, who can most often be found at the rink wearing a Life Is Good curling T-shirt that says "Rock on" under her down vest. "But we'd much rather have the enjoyment of Jeff participating than limit his style of play."

Peck is just a small portion of the offbeat nature of curling in general—and the GSMCC is particular. The club is the brainchild of Shipstead, who helped get curling started in Colorado Springs, Colo. at the five-star Broadmoor Hotel's Training Center where he managed ice shows, and brought the idea south to Knoxville when he and his wife Deb moved here to live closer to their daughter. After a brief stint at the Icearium, the GSMCC seized hold at the Ice Chalet in 2004, further bolstered by the television popularity of curling in the Winter 2006 Olympics. "We would just not be here if not for Eddie," says Takata, a sentiment oft-repeated by the other members.

Not many would even consider trying to establish a curling bunkhead in the South. Though Nashville also has a club, the nearest one that offers a tournament, or bonspiel, is in Bowling Green, Ky., a seven-hour drive from here. So far is the group from the centers of curling that it's umbrella organization is the Great Lakes Curling Association, and other members come from places like Kalamazoo.

But a more prominent oddity about the GSMCC is the rink—unlike most curlers nationwide, the group plays on arena ice, the same used for ice hockey and the "couples free skate," instead of on a specifically formulated surface at a dedicated curling facility. "We have to get out there after the Zamboni's been there; we have half an hour to make the ice as decent as possible, and it's different every week," says Eric Nicholls, who's been curling for six years and serves as the club's treasurer. "Suppose you were to take bowling and say, ‘OK, we're going to go over to the gym and set up a bowling alley. You've got 30 minutes to get the floor buffed up and start rolling.' We've got challenges with the ice."

As well as affecting a particular game, the ice determines how quickly you can learn to curl, says Matthew Jones, one of the many McKay bookstore employees who curls with GSMCC—as many as seven one season. "It took me about a year before I was unembarrassing, but it could have been quicker if I'd had more access to the ice than just two hours on Sunday evenings," he says. "It's not like you can just freeze your bathtub to practice."

Eric Kortebein, a 23-year-old University of Tennessee student who played on a team that took a second at the college nationals, notes that an aspiring competitive player could never originate in Knoxville—"not when you have to travel at least eight hours just to play in a tournament."

The Curling Character

In fundamental outlook, though, the GSMCC players are much like most curlers the world over. For one, the clubbers tend to be modest, almost superstitiously so, like Nicholls, who worked his way through the ranks to skip in just a few years, though he started in his late 50s. "Well, with a lot of prodding," he says. "I'm still very deficient."

With a similar attitude, Kortebein practically skips over his team's second place division finish at the college nationals but shares liberally about his squad's performance at the 2006 U.S. Junior Men's Curling Championships. "We got stomped," he says.

And good nature abounds, on the ice and after the matches. "We have a good time, but it's usually not anything laugh-out-loud," says Nicholls.

Another link among the majority of players is anything but coincidental: many come from Northern states, or Canada, where people have not only heard of curling, they may have even tossed a rock or two—on ice that's flat, level, smooth, the proper temperature and controlled just for curling. "I still have culture shock after nine years," says Takata, who moved here from her native Montreal, where she curled for a year. "Curling is something that eases that. One of the things you notice here is a good mix of people from Canada, New York, Minnesota."

"In other words, damn Yankees," quips Bob Zasowski, who hails from Buffalo, N.Y. "I've made it here for years, but I'm not saying ‘fixin' to" or ‘y'all' yet."

"Or ‘I don't care to,'" says Takata with a laugh. "I ran into that with my secretary, where I asked her to do something and she said, ‘I don't care to.' I was like, ‘Excuse me?'"

Most of all, the members are very, very, into the game—though even the died-in-the-cotton Southerners like Alabama-born Jones don't gush about it. Instead, everyone just repeats that "it's fun."

"Once you get into it, it's addictive," he says. "Not gung ho, just friendly. It's fun."

"It's like being a good chess player," says Nicholls, "you have to be able to look ahead and know the strategy, the tactics. The biggest day-to-day reward is when you're able to put together a good shot, come up with a strategy that works well. It's like golf, you keep going because you know you can do better. That's what's fun."

"I have to walk with my balance lower, so I'm ready to fall," says Margie Ragsdale, who started curling three years ago and can now lead a team as its skip. "For the whole first month, I was like, ‘Where's the hidden camera?' But I like curling just because it's goofy. It's an Olympic sport anyone can do. It's fun."

Playing Nice

A lot of the more experienced curlers buy rubber sliding shoes, one coated in Teflon for easy gliding, with a gripper that slips over the Teflon like a galosh, but Jones never made the investment. He did designate a pair of shoes to his sport. He picked them up on sale. What kind? "They're, ah, brown," he says and gives a characteristic chortle at his own expense.

That sort of good humor is another shared characteristic of the group—and probably the only one that's mandatory, says Takata, who serves as secretary of the Great Lakes Curling Association and often competes out of town. "Curling is one of those different, different sports where integrity and honesty are basic. In most matches, you agree on the score among the skips. You pat the guy on the back. Even if it was a bad shot, you find something good to say about it—even to the opponents."

When you do manage to score highest? "The tradition is that the winners buy the losers drinks," says Shipstead, smiling. "Of course it doesn't have to be whiskey or beer."

Part of the dues for the club go towards continuing education—and entertainment. "The club has a subscription to CurlTV, so they can go online and watch," says Takata. "A friend in Midland, Mich., is looking into a Wii curling league, so we can all play on Nintendo."

And being a curling anomaly doesn't keep the GSMCC from hosting bonspiels—this June was the fourth annual Rocky Top Open, complete with handmade moonshine jug trophies and a country-and-western band made up of Nashville Curling Club members, who also competed. "A couple curlers came from Alaska," says Takata. "I've been all the way to Alaska to curl, because they came to our 'spiel and invited us to come to theirs.

"A lot of my curling friends from the North and Canada are going, ‘People in Tennessee curl? Give us an invite—we'll come curl in our shorts and T-shirts."