It's been called shuffleboard on ice, or golf on ice, or chess on ice. But ask most people what curling is and their response might be a puzzled look. This year in Salt Lake City curling athletes will be giving their maximum effort to win a medal in the sport.
For those who compete in curling, nothing can compare to the sport which originated in Scotland in the 1500's when farmers used large, smooth channel stones on frozen marshes. The game came to North America in the 18th century and has changed little in the past 300 years.
The object is to slide a 19 kilogram granite stone with a small handle down a sheet of ice and place it as close as possible to the center of a target in the ice known as "the house." The stone slides in an arc or curl depending on the spin it is given when released, the smoothness of the ice and the speed of the stone.
A game is made up of 10 "ends" like innings in baseball. Each member of the competing teams shoots two stones. The team that gets the stone closest to the center of the house, or target, scores a point if the stone is within one meter, 83 centimeters of the center of the house. There are four players on a team - the lead, the second shooter, the third or vice skip, and the skip or captain.
Competitors use brooms to clear the ice in front of the stone as it slides down the 43-meter playing area. Sweeping helps clear debris from in front of the stone, as well as creating a thin layer of water which helps the stone slide on the ice sheet. The team with the most points at the end of 10 ends wins. Matches can last as long as three hours, and athletes must have both strength and endurance to compete.
Curling was a demonstration sport at six previous Olympics, most recently in 1992 at Albertville, France, and it finally became an official medal event four years ago at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
This year, the U.S. women's curling team is expected to vie for an Olympic medal before the home fans. Two of the team members were on the American team that finished fifth at the 1998 Nagano games. They are Debbie McCormick and Stacey Liapis. Stacy's sister Kari Erickson joins her on the team this time, and the other member of the quartet is Ann Swisshelm. Liapis and Erickson have been competing together since they were children, and Kari says the time they spent together makes them stronger competitors.
"We've curled together ever since we started curling. I took a year off and Stacey continued to curl with another team. Of course I want my sister on my team. We are best friends and we have a great time curling together," she says.
The two sisters helped lead their team - or rink - to fifth place in last year's World championships. The U.S. squad opened with four wins, including one over eventual world champion Canada. Lead curler Ann Swisshelm says the unity and cooperation the team possesses helps them compete against the strongest sides in the world.
"It's interesting we are not a super team like hockey or basketball. We are a self-formed team so we build our own communications structures and our own skills. And finding the right group of people to do that and excel with those people is a true joy, I think, in sport," she says.
The Erickson squad has another unique asset. Kari and Stacey's father Mike Liapis coaches the team. Mike, the 2001 U.S. Curling Coach of the year, had two squads in the U.S. National championships - Kari's and Paul Pustovar in the men's competition. Kari says that having her father as coach has its good side and its drawbacks.
"It can be good and bad. Most of the time it is good because you kind of have an in, knowing that it's your dad that's coaching you and he knows you so well and can kind of read us. But on the other side I tend to have not a lot of patience with him sometimes, and I tend to say things to him that if I had another coach who was not family, I probably would watch what I say a little bit more," she says.
Ann Swisshelm says that Coach Liapis treats all the team members alike, and his expertise has been a key element to the team's success.
"Michael treats me exactly the way he treats Kari or Stacey. He treats Debbie the same way. He has an unbelievable ability to really just coach us. And we sort of all have become his daughters," she says.
If Swisshelm, Erickson and the rest of the U.S. Women's Curling team hope to win an Olympic gold medal, they will have to beat nine other teams, including the reigning Olympic champions Canada, silver medallists Denmark or third place finishers Sweden.
The 2002 Olympic competition will be held about 60 kilometers north of Salt Lake City at the Ogden Ice Sheet, the same place where Kari Erickson and her teammates won last year's U.S. National Curling Championship.