Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Meghan Gloyd blames her cat. She had nearly completed her registration for a coveted spot in Potomac Curling Club’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Extravaganza when she took her eyes off her computer for 15 seconds to shoo him away. That short delay cost Gloyd a guaranteed spot and landed her on the club’s waitlist. Her curling debut appeared to be in jeopardy.

“I was really bummed … I was like, ‘Seriously? What the crap?’” Gloyd laughs. “I was refreshing the button. It took me too long to write my name.”

A year after the United States men’s curling team won gold at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, the club still benefits from the spike in interest. Forty new members joined the club in 2018, bringing the total to 394 at the end of the fall season, according to board president Adam Kapp

During the winter, The Wharf hosts outdoor curling games that routinely draw the interest of casual fans to its ice rink. But learning how to throw and sweep with an established club requires more advanced planning.

Registration for the PCC’s Saturday morning events begins at 8 p.m. the Wednesday 10 days prior. Twenty spots are reserved for members and 12 are saved for non-members, in order to keep the level of experience balanced. Non-members pay a $25 fee for breakfast, play time, and drinks and snacks after the game. As Gloyd learned, it fills up quickly, sometimes within seconds. 

The event almost always generates a waitlist, says Kevin White, one of the three coordinators along with Keith Wood and Mike Szabronski. During the Olympic fervor last February, the club, which operates out of the National Capital Curling Center in Laurel, had more than 40 hopeful participants on its waitlist. About 10 were waitlisted on this chilly Saturday morning in January.

A day earlier, Gloyd received an email from the club. Due to a cancellation, she had been taken off the waitlist and could join her friends on the ice.

“I have watched it in the Olympics,” says Gloyd, a Baltimore resident. “And it looked really fun.”

***

Several dozen sleepy-eyed participants from all over the D.C. area arrive at the club at 7:30 with the intention of spending the next few hours playing the winter sport with Scottish roots that involves throwing large, heavy granite stones on sheets of ice and sweeping a path to a central target.

At 9:37 a.m., White, wearing a black vest with a blue name tag that indicates his status as a club member, walks over to the far corner of the room, next to the juice containers and coffee pots, and rings a bell. The room of about 30 people in the middle of finishing breakfast comes to a standstill. 

“Wow, Pavlovian response,” White jokes.

With stomachs full, the group meanders over to the curling rink. A collection of brooms is located along the walls, and hung above the ice are flags of the United States, Canada, Scotland, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Earlier in the day, the newcomers learned about the rules of the game. 

The objective is to throw more stones near the circular target (the “house”) than the opposing team. The two teams consist of four players each: the lead, the second, the third (or vice), and the skip. Teams alternate sliding a stone (two per player), sweeping the ice in the path of the stone, or directing strategy from the house. 

It seems simple, but there’s a reason why some call curling “chess on ice.” It requires a lot of technique and finesse. Throwing a stone past the house results in zero points, so brute strength won’t help. Knowing where and how hard to sweep will alter the path the stone travels.

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“I think it’s something that is just a little bit different,” says Kapp. “It definitely combines physicality and being an athlete with strategy and the mental game.”

Gloyd, wearing a green dinosaur onesie, is easy to pick out on the ice. Her friends, Andrew (a federal government employee from D.C.), and his wife, Alex, are moving to the West Coast next month and convinced Gloyd, and their other friends, fellow first-time curlers Stefan Roha and Laura Roha of Takoma, to try the activity before they departed.

A few members of the group entered the ice with a preconceived idea that the sport would be easy. Experienced curlers are used to the jokes and condescending sneers. Anyone can be an Olympian in curling, right?

“It was harder than I thought,” says Gloyd. “The idea of both letting it curl and twisting the stone and also pushing off without going out of bounds or too fast, too slow, there’s a lot of variables. I didn’t know how to calibrate.”

“It’s definitely harder than it looks on TV,” says Stefan. “Definitely a lot of skill involved. I’m not sure I ever really got good at judging if I were too slow or too hard.”

Two sheets over, Elisabeth Weber can’t feel her feet. Her cousin, club member Joe Morrison, had warned her about the cold, but Weber didn’t think it’d be quite this bad and wore ankle socks. Morrison had repeatedly tried to convince Weber and her husband, Carl, to join him on the ice. The early morning proved to be a deterrent for the Ballston residents, but they finally caved.

Carl didn’t need too much convincing after watching the Olympics. 

“I think Carl got into [Olympic curling] more than I did,” Elisabeth says with a laugh. “It was kind of cool, because I had never watched curling before, but when someone explains the rules to you it’s a lot more interesting when you know what’s going on.”

***

Credit: Kelyn Soong

Social interaction is a big part of curling culture, and curlers value their time off the ice. In the curling world, the traditional post-game gathering is known as broomstacking and involves a fair amount of alcohol.

After the Saturday proceedings, Alexa Oxer picks up a shot of Irish whiskey, which she downs in one gulp.

“Oh, it’s gross,” she says, pursing her lips. “Would you like some?”

Over the years, she’s attended two or three Saturday morning extravaganzas with her boyfriend, Morrison, and had been content with her experience. She would show up at the center to take photos of him, but did not initially feel the urge to join a competitive league. 

Oxer became a full-time club member last year shortly after the two moved to Silver Spring, and now plays several times a week. On her feet, she says after downing her whiskey shot, are equipment befitting a curling enthusiast: Goldline Quantum E curling shoes, a rubber anti-slider slip-on gripper, and Quantum slider discs attached to the bottom of her shoes (total price: $265 before tax). She has also purchased curling-related apparel like gray socks with curling rocks on them and a pearl curling rock necklace. “I love the way they look,” she says.

One table over, former George Mason University law school classmates Tim Tang and Kevin Misener are playing crokinole, a hand-eye coordination board game popular in curling circles, with a group of curlers. Several, like Oxer, had taken a shot of whiskey or were drinking beer. On the far end of the center is a full-service bar with cabinets full of alcohol.

“We try to make it appeal to our guests,” White says of the event. “We try to make it guest-centric so people come in, have a good time, want to come back, and tell friends that they had a good time.”

More than five hours have passed since the start of the Saturday morning breakfast, and yet half of the 32 individuals are still sitting around and socializing. The Irish whiskey has made its way around the four tables. More games are brought out. More drinks are served. And no one is in a hurry to leave.