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Curling gaining in popularity in Western Pa.

| Friday, March 14, 2008

Curling may look like shuffleboard on ice, but when push comes to shove - that would be pushing the stone down the ice after shoving oneself off a starting block in a lunge position while wearing a Teflon-covered shoe - just try it and see how much is actually involved.

No, really, try it.

The Pittsburgh Curling Club will make it as easy as possible by providing the equipment and the instruction on two upcoming learn-to-curl sessions in April at the Robert Morris Island Sports Center at Neville Island.

The finesse, balance and aim is up to the individual.

"The hardest thing to get down initially is the slide (when delivering the stone)," said Pittsburgh Curling Club president Andy Banfield. "You're working on footwork, making sure your hands are in the right position, you're aiming for a target and you're also trying to throw at the right weight, so that becomes the hardest thing."

Six years ago the Pittsburgh Curling Club was only a thought in the minds of a few people, some transplants from curling hotbeds such as Canada and upstate New York and some born-and-bred Pittsburghers who watched the sport during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and were fascinated.

One such native was Rich Ashford, 43, of Level Green, a longtime bowler who went on the Internet to find out where to curl in Western Pennsylvania and found only the names of a few others who wanted to start a club.

"I lived here my whole life, and I just assumed there would be somewhere to do this," Ashford said. "I just never thought it wouldn't be here."

Over a period of months and many e-mails, the club was finally formed in October 2002 with 12 founding members.

After a big surge during the 2006 Winter Olympics, they have 115 members and have all but outgrown their Saturday night time slot. Their learn-to-curl sessions are popular, with the 160 spots available in April almost filled.

"We're maxed out," said Steve Burchesky, one of the founding members and a transplant from Utica, N.Y., where he grew up curling and now does it with his family. "We can't get any more times unless we start curling at midnight."

The basics of curling are simple - there are two teams, each with four members and eight "stones," or 42-pound flattened balls made of solid granite. The object is to get all eight stones into the "house," or the target area of concentric circles at the other end of the ice, as close to the center as possible.

Of course that's much easier said than done.

There is a great deal of strategy involved in curling, and the person responsible for calling the shots is the skip. He or she is the one who tells the other three where to aim and how hard to deliver the stone, and lets the two sweepers know how hard they have to work to aid the stone along its path.

"Communication is paramount," said Banfield, 42, of Shaler. "As soon as the deliverer of the stone lets go, he's no longer in control. Obviously he put the initial velocity on it and threw it, but the sweepers have to communicate with the skip on how heavy the rock was delivered, and the skip has to communicate with them if it's on the right line. It's a great team sport. It's four people working in unison to get that stone where they want it to be."

The Pittsburgh Curling Club hosts an annual summer tournament - or bonspiel - called TropiCurl Island and last year had 48 teams from as far away as Alberta and Saskatchewan. Within the next two years they hope to build a dedicated curling facility.

"There's a lot of interest on the national front to have a curling facility in Pittsburgh because it's right in between the curling hotbeds of Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota and the Eastern side - Boston and further up into Maine," Banfield said. "Pittsburgh is a perfect middle point."

Curl on

If you've ever wanted to try curling, the Pittsburgh Curling Club offers plenty of opportunities for beginners to learn the sport. They will offer two learn-to-curl sessions -- on April 13 and 20. Space is limited to 160 new curlers and filling up fast so e-mail to reserve your spot. Visit for more details on the club or curling in general.

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