The sport of curling has an image problem. After all, anything that involves a broom and sweeping isn’t going to win any awards for sexiness. Figure skaters get to wear short skirts, snowboarders are just plain badass, and speed skaters seem superhuman. When you watch a curling match, it just looks like everyone is hanging around the ice in sensible shoes, staring at a bunch of granite stones.
This is one of the main problems with the sport: We want our Olympic athletes to look superhuman, and curling just seems easy. Determined to understand what exactly made curling a "workout," I trekked to the Plainfield Curling Club in New Jersey to try it out for myself. Janice Langanke, 47, whose family started the club in 1963, gamely agreed to teach me. She has some national awards under her belt and has been curling since she was a pre-schooler. The sport, she says, has taken a toll on her body: After 40 years of lunging on one side, she’s got some imbalance in her hip flexors and knees. She does a lot of core work, like planks, to keep her abdominal muscles strong, and works on the abductor and adductor machines at the gym to keep her hips in shape. She warned that after the first time you play every season, you can be sore for days afterwards.
In curling, you launch a 42- to 44-pound stone by sliding on the ice in a deep lunge. Your teammates then “sweep” at a frenetic pace in front of the stone to control where it will end up. “That lunge, the slide — that really takes flexibility and balance, stamina and strength. But the real trick is recovering after sweeping in order to throw that stone,” Ann Swisshelm, the 45-year-old lead on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Curling Team, told the Cut. “That is without a doubt the most physically grueling component of the game. You’re torqueing yourself sideways, you’re shuffling up and down the ice at varying rates of speed. You do it over and over and over again, and it can be pretty exhausting.” In the course of a game, you can potentially sweep for almost a mile in total. Ann Muirhead, the Scottish skip of Great Britain’s curling team and a world champion, has a well-documented training schedule that has left her as ripped as a beach volleyball player.
Training for curling has changed a lot over the years, but it involves rigorous, full-body workouts. Swisshelm, who also competed in the 2002 Olympics, says she trains differently now than she did 12 years ago. “Over the years we’ve been adding a significant level of strength training," she said. There's now an emphasized focus on "your quads, your hamstrings, your glutes — getting those as strong as possible." In addition to strength-training, Swisshelm rows for cardio endurance and does a lot of interval training; as a result, she's lost 40 pounds, which she says has made her more competitive and increased her endurance.
After watching Langanke demonstrate the lunge/slide/release, I pulled some rubber “grippers” over the soles of my sneakers and carefully made my way onto the ice. I needed to use a stabilizer in my left hand to keep myself upright, otherwise I surely would have toppled sideways. Seriously, go outside right now and try to do a deep lunge on ice – it takes the engagement of every single core muscle you have to keep yourself upright, not to mention a Hilaria Baldwin level of bendiness in your knees and hips.
“Well, you did that a lot better than the CNBC guy a few weeks ago,” Langanke said, laughing. I took that as the highest of praise, but my cockiness quickly diminished when I tried sweeping, the cardio portion of the sport. This requires you to lean most of your body weight onto the head of the broom while moving it quickly back and forth, all while shuffling with your feet to keep up with the surprisingly quick-moving stone. I made it down one length and was breathing pretty heavily afterwards, which surprised me because I think I’m pretty fit. Not as fit as a curler, apparently. Some Canadian studies have shown that heart rates in athletic people can climb as high as 170 bpm while curling. (The resting heart rate for a healthy adult is 60-100 bpm). Apparently "CNBC guy"’s heart rate went up to 220 bpm. With a typical game lasting about two hours, it can be quite an interval workout.
Despite the workout, convincing a younger crowd to pick up curling may be a challenge simply because it isn’t as enticing as some other sports — and doesn’t obviously appear to involve exercise. Langanke acknowledged that while the club expects a bump in membership during and after the Olympics, its junior program is pretty anemic now. The majority of Plainfield’s members, 35 percent of which are female, are in the 30-50 demographic.
And of course no discussion of curling’s image can be complete without discussion of Norway’s wacky pants. Both Swisshelm and Langanke are fans. “You’ve got this hot skip on Team Norway, and he can totally pull it off,” Langanke said. A bit of fashion flair and individualism, à la figure skating’s sequined nude body-stockings and snowboarding’s stylish outfits, might help the sport out. The uniforms, barring Norway’s, are utilitarian at best. Swisshelm doesn’t disagree, but a lot of curling involves tradition. Those practical stretchy pants and clunky shoes are part of it. “But if someone had something really great for us, we’d probably consider wearing it,” she said.
And speaking of uniforms, Swisshelm has a good attitude about those much-maligned Ralph Lauren sweaters for the U.S. Olympic team. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a vintage curling sweater!" she said. "2014 is totally the year of the curler.”
The Plainfield Curling Club will be holding open houses on February 22 and 23.