Among the winter sports landscape, one sport stands out from the rest. Using stones and brooms, curling vaguely resembles classic recreational games like shuffleboard and bowling. The specifics of the game, and its worldwide reach in the Olympics draw attention to the unique nature of the sport.
This led to the sport developing a passionate community of curlers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Despite UNL having a long-standing club team, very few of its curlers had ever tried the sport before arriving on campus.
“The people at the [UNL club sports fair] booth seemed really approachable, so I went to the first practice,” Nebraska sophomore curler Emma Whaley said. “And right away you could tell nobody had so much experience that they were going to judge anyone who didn’t know how to do it.”
Curling has a certain learning curve, with figuring out strategies and shot types being a new experience for most curlers.
The captain of the team is known as the skip, who handles the final two shots of each period and call out strategies for their teammates. The rank below the skip is known as the vice, who delivers the second-to-last pair of stones. The two frequently discuss strategies together, preparing the vice for one day being a skip.
“I do a lot of breathing to calm down, because even the smallest deviation can cause feet worth of change,” Husker skip Luke Schroeder said. “That helps me with my balance, and people joke that curling’s not the most physical sport, but you do need to get your body ready for the sport.”
Part of being a skip is reading the ice, which involves looking at the frozen particles of water on the ice, which will be swept away by the brooms, and calling the line of where you want the shot to go. Due to the physics of the curling shot, the stone will go a few feet to the right or left of where the skip aims, which makes the calculations more complex.
While the sport is tricky to pick up at first, it is a fun and rewarding experience. The sport carries a unique culture among its midwestern college participants, who are focused on having fun more than the competition aspect.
This is seen in the friendly rivalry between Nebraska and Minnesota. Every time the teams square off, the winner gets a specially designed ugly Christmas sweater known as the ‘Gophusker’ sweater.
“It’s like a red cardigan with a yellow vest sewn on top of it and patches all over,” Whaley said. “It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen but if you play against them you have to wear it.”
The Gophers reclaimed the sweater at their bonspiel, the curling world’s term for meet, this season. The bonspiels have a very laid-back vibe and carry an unwritten rule: if a team is bringing two teams, do not overload one team with the best players in favor of competitive balance.
Sometimes on weekends, the Nebraska curling team will practice with the Aksarben curling club, a local curling team who hosts learn-to-curl events. This season thanks to the Winter Olympics, the team has seen an increase in popularity due to the sport getting prime-time coverage.
The number of Omahans joining the learn-to-curls at Baxter Arena has skyrocketed since the start of the Winter Olympics.
“We probably had like 500 people express interest in curling,” Husker curling club coach and Aksarben curling club member Nancy Myers said. “Now they have learn-to-curls once or twice a week, and they’re booked out for the next two months.”
The increase in curling interest is good news for the UNL curling team, which is at its lowest membership total in years after numbers fell during the pandemic. At the next club sport expo, the curling team is optimistic that the increased attention on the sport will inspire students to try it themselves, many of whom may not have known what the sport was or that UNL even had a team.
The USA Curling College Championships starting March 11 and the Nebraska curling team is focused on its toughest task yet, competing against the top 15 ranked teams from the Midwest and east coast. The five members going to nationals have been practicing with each other for the past month with the hope of bonding closer and curling their best.
“We start every practice off with what we call a one good thing, where even if you had a horrible week, you find one good thing that happened and share that,” Schroeder said. “We celebrate each other’s wins, rather big or small, and that sets the tone for the practice.”
When students first arrived on campus, they didn’t know what curling stones, brooms and skips were, and they now find themselves competing on a national stage. The journey of learning this unique game has been rewarding, one the UNL Curling Club hopes will culminate with a successful performance and a lot of fun.