Sometimes it's a bad idea to watch the Olympic Games in a bar. When someone shouts over the broadcast of the biathlon "Hey, I could do that," you might not want to challenge them, especially since this is Texas and that bar patron probably already has one half of the shooting/skiing sport mastered.
But when you're watching curling on the tube after having a few, and someone suggests you all go down to Clear Lake to try your hand at lawn bowling on ice, you think "What could go wrong?"
That's how Texas Traveler ended up at the Space City Ice Station at 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday.
The weekend before, we watched as the US Women defeated Great Britain in a round-robin game and listened as the sportscasters opined about the future of the sport. Curling, it seems, has a reputation somewhat similar to that of whist -- it's an old lady's game, at least in the countries where it's played regularly.
But both the US and Great Britain teams were looking to change that.
Eve Muirhead, the 19-year-old skip (or captain) of the Great Britain team, has funky dyed hair and a tattoo of the Olympic rings. On the US team, the oldest curler was Tracy Sachtjen, born in 1969, who kept a blog about her experiences in Vancouver, bringing the game to a whole new medium.
The Curling Club of Houston's website claims club members from the age of 10 to 76, and that's exactly the appeal of the sport, according to club resident Robert Rounding. It looks like something people can master.
The first thing I notice as I walk into the rink are the sounds the stones make on the ice, not unlike the thunder and crash of a bowling ball careening down the alley. It's something you don't hear watching the sport on TV. This is because the ice is pebbled, which also, conveniently, makes it harder to slip and fall.
One hundred and sixty-two people have paid the $15 admission to the ice rink, just south of Beltway 8 on Interstate 45, for Saturday night's beginner lesson. They line up on either side of the six houses, or targets, under the ice at each end of the rink. The night before, more than 200 people showed up, which required the club to hold two separate sessions.
The ice is crowded, but each person gets a chance to slide the heavy granite stone, learning delivery techniques and ways to recover if you do manage to lose your balance.
The houses seem to be divided into different skill sets. One group, the curlers are so new they have to use a PVC rig, a kind of brace, to lean on so their body doesn't collapse over their extended leg. I listen to club members, acting as coaches for the n00bs, debate each one's skills. "This little one on the end, she can throw takeouts."
The club hosts learn-to-curl sessions about once a month, usually drawing 25-40 people, but the Olympics of course bring the crowds. Practices are held late a night because there are only so many ice rinks in Houston, and only so many curling clubs in Texas (Austin and Dallas also have one). Rounding tells me he expects the Olympic fever to last though.
"We're going to start a year-round league, and we're thinking about having a camp," he said. "We're one of the oldest curling clubs in the United States."
Rounding, a Canadian who moved to Houston for work, said the club was formed by fellow Canadian expats 35 years ago. Currently, the club's members are about half Canadian and half United States citizens. And it turns out they're really good. In 1991, a female member of the Curling Club of Houston won the US Nationals.
It's hard to tell if the learn-to-curlers are there for the goof of it, or if they're really into the sport. Control of the stone is not even remotely as easy as it looks, but one guy tells me it's his second day in a row to attend the training. He looks pretty good already.
Some of the younger curlers, though, look like they're on a Saturday night date. Several are wearing low-cut pants and skinny jeans, which makes crouching difficult. I spy more than one buttcrack. The website says to wear warm, loose-fitted clothing, and I'm wearing a sweater, but my hands are freezing. All that standing around waiting for my turn hasn't kept me warm.
Other than warm clothes, a newby doesn't need to bring any other equipment or gear to the rink. The Curling Club has all the stones and brushes needed for a match. Membership to the club is $50, plus fees for rental of the ice rink. Not that they need any help in rounding up interest, but next year Texas Traveler would like to see some curling on the ice at Discovery Green.
Check the Curling Club of Houston's website for information on the next Learn to Curl session.
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