Curling: Not falling on your face is just the 1st challenge

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EVERETT, Wash. (AP) — They make it look so damn effortless.

Watching from afar, curling looks like a marriage of shuffleboard and bocce ball on ice that requires about the same amount of physical ability. The kind of recreational activity that usually involves an adult beverage, and where having a modicum of athleticism is all that's needed.

Just glide gracefully across the ice before gently gliding the 44-pound stone down the 146-foot sheet and yelling at your teammates to occasionally brush away at the ice in front of the rock.

Simple, right?

What I learned trying out the sport for the first time prior to the U.S. nationals last month is the stereotypes about curling are pretty much false. These competitors are athletes and it's a lot of work.

Let's be clear: Curling doesn't require the same athletic ability as other winter sports. Jason Smith, an Olympian for the U.S. at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, explained that the No. 1 physical trait needed to be a good curler is flexibility, and then proceeded to glide down the ice and shoot the rock with his leg bent at such an extreme angle that my patellar tendon hurt watching.

Me? I was trying not to fall over and crack my head on the ice. Every aspect of the sport is difficult.

The first time I attempted sliding and shooting, every muscle in my legs clenched and flexed as I tried to maintain steadiness. I slid only a couple of feet before releasing the rock, losing my balance and slamming my right knee into the ice of the practice sheet.

"Try not to do that on the big ice," I heard one of the competitors say, somewhat sarcastically, as my now-bruised knee left a noticeable streak on the ice.

The stigma is that curling is a glorified bar game. What became clear very quickly is that this isn't a sport to be attempted after tossing back a few pints. It's tough enough sliding on the ice clearheaded, let alone with hops and barley running through your veins.

Consider the sweepers, who some 60 times in one match will slide their way down the sheet, sweeping frantically at the ice just in front of the stone for about 40 yards. It's a 20- to 30-second burst of adrenaline and power that would rival any interval workout.

Or the fact that even professionals will use balancing aids when shooting. I felt like I was using the equivalent of training wheels holding a stability bar in my left hand and sliding it across the ice as I went to shoot, until being told some of the competitors in the championships would be using the same device.

Want to know why most shooters continue to hold a broom in their off-hand as they shoot? Balance.

The little aspects are perhaps the most surprising. The more twist the shooter puts on the release of the stone, the straighter it actually goes. Want it to curve like a cut or a draw in golf? Put just a slight amount of turn on the stone when sending it away. Trying to set the stones as blockers outside the target area is more difficult than actually getting a shot to stop near the center of the circle.

The sweeping?

"Your sweepers, honestly, they make a lot of the shots. They make the skips look good, really. If they're really good, they can make the skip and the third and everyone else look really good," said skip Darryl Sobering. "Sweeping is a skill most non-curlers don't understand."

As difficult as it is to keep your balance and release the stone without falling over, the sweeping is a far more difficult task. Sweep as close to the front of the stone, without touching it, moving down the ice without a misstep and — perhaps most challenging — sweep back and forth in a precise 6-inch window.

Because every team member does each part of the game, a poor sweeper can't hide. Therefore it was encouraging to hear veteran curler Kroy Nernberger estimate that a new curler needed a couple of years of experience before becoming a competition-ready sweeper.

That wasn't going to happen in my couple of hours. At least I could take solace in my final shot hitting the target with minimal sweeping. That was satisfaction enough for my first time on the ice.

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