By Susan T. Hessel —
From the moment 17-year-old Toni Paisley slid her first stone down the curling sheet in La Crosse’s Green Island Ice Arena, she was hooked. “I just loved this sport,” she said. “I knew I had to join [the La Crosse Curling Club] and pursue it further.”
Six years later, Paisley has experienced the agony and triumph of competitive curling, an ice sport that dates back to 16th-century Scotland. The agony came in losing a “junior play down” that would have resulted in being named to a national team. The triumph came in being the skip (or captain) for two women’s teams that won the Arena National Championship in 2014 and 2015.
Curling is about much more than winning. It’s about friendship and camaraderie with people of all ages and abilities. Ages range from 9 to 80, and from beginners to champions.
“We pride ourselves in this being a ‘gentleman’s sport.’ The people are more important than the result of the game,” Paisley said.
Curling is a kind of shuffleboard on ice combined with the strategy of chess. The sport requires precision and following the directions of the skip, who uses hand signals to show where that stone should go. Two “sweepers” feverishly smooth the rough ice in front of the stone with brooms to help it make its way to the house (a target area segmented into four concentric circles) 150 feet away.
“You can’t make the stone go faster or farther,” said Kathi Millard, who has been playing since the 1980s. “But by sweeping, you can get it to go in the direction you want.”
The stone closest to the button in the center of the house wins the point at each end. Sometimes there are very small differences between the winner and another stone or two.
When Robert Richardson and his wife, Silvana, came to La Crosse, they knew there would be no opportunity for him to play luge. Someone suggested curling. “I didn’t even know what curling was,” he said. When he went to the La Crosse Curling Club, he instantly fell in love with the sport and the people who played it.
Since the club owned its facility, they could curl multiple times a week. Each member had a key to the place, which could be used whenever they wanted. “You could bring your friends there,” Millard said.
“Some people ate their Thanksgiving dinner there,” Richardson added.
Unfortunately, the club had to sell its facility in 1998, and with no other location, the club disbanded for 12 years, although some went to clubs in Centerville and Galesville, Wisconsin.
The La Crosse Curling Club, which began in 1914, received new life 12 years later when new City of La Crosse Parks and Recreation director Steve Carlyon offered ice time once a month at Green Island. After a successful first season, the program expanded to weekly sessions. More sessions were added and now there are opportunities four days a week. The club now has more than 120 members just learning and/or in leagues.
Paisley quickly established herself as an up and coming curling athlete, one who could potentially go to the Olympics. “I just found it an exhilarating experience,” she said.
Millard, who was a competitive athlete in bowling and softball, appreciates the relationships players have within their team and with their opponents. They socialize together and encourage each other, providing congratulations when appropriate and suggestions for improving skills. “We are competitive, but supportive,” she said.
Showing respect for each other goes hand in hand with the spirit of curling. “Curlers show [respect], not only to one another, but also to the sport itself. It is encapsulated by the saying that a curler would rather lose than win unfairly.”
Curling aficionados always seek more prospective players, a reason the club offers opportunities to try out curling or bring a friend. There is an instant bond between players when they find each other.
Millard was surprised when her fellow softball and bowling teammates did not share her love for the game. “They couldn’t relate to it,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a little while to catch on.”
Members encourage prospective curlers, offering lessons and plenty of advice. Since the game is not as well-known as football or baseball, there is much for novices to learn. “When we teach new people, they have 20,000 questions,” Richardson said, adding that there is usually a moment when it all clicks.
The ultimate goal for the club is to have its own facility again since ice time is limited at Green Island. That could cost between $2.5 million and $5 million.
He welcomes novices to check out curling. They will experience the bond that the players love. “It’s a thrill to have four people work so well together,” Richardson said, “and enjoying each other while challenging each other at the same time.”
Learn more about curling at lacrossecurlingclub.com.