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Schools of rock: How Olympic gold has fueled a 'learn to curl' boom

How Olympic gold has fueled a 'learn to curl' boom
REUTERS/Phil Noble
Skip John Shuster delivering the stone during the men's semi-finals match against Canada.

The U.S. curling team’s victory tour finally eased up this week.

Olympic gold medalists John Shuster, Tyler George, Matt Hamilton, John Landsteiner and Joe Polo had been going almost nonstop since their victorious return from PyeongChang, from ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange to sweeping cameos (literally) in the Broadway show “The Play That Goes Wrong” to appearances on the Today and Tonight Shows to salutes at Wild and Timberwolves games. 

It’s been exhausting. And it’s not over: The guys are slated to “throw” out the first ball at the Twins home opener April 5, though you wonder if sweeping or sliding it is the better call.

Meanwhile, curling clubs across the country are benefiting from the frenzy.

Area curling clubs routinely offer Learn To Curl classes in the fall and spring. Every four years, inquiries spike in the weeks during and after the Olympics. People watch the TV coverage, decide curling is a fun, cool sport played by normal-looking men and women, and want to give it a try. An “If they can do it, I can do it” vibe permeates.

Throw America’s first Olympic gold medal into the mix — by regular guys who resemble bartenders (as Shuster once was), liquor store owners (as George is), or second bananas in a Will Ferrell comedy (Hamilton and that mustache, c’mon) — and the curiosity factor jumps off the charts. 

All six curling venues in the greater Twin Cities — there are five curling-specific clubs, and one skating arena that offers curling — report that their Learn To Curl classes are filling up as fast as they can be scheduled. That’s never happened to this extent before.

John Benton, Shuster’s 2010 Olympic teammate and the curling operations director at the Four Seasons Curling Club in Blaine — also the Olympic training center — said his phone was “ringing off the hook” the morning after Shuster’s team shocked world power Canada, 5-3, to advance to the gold medal game. That prompted Benton to add more Learn to Curls to the schedule. Four sessions through April 7 are sold out, two more the weekend of April 14-15 are running out of room, and more may be added if demand persists. Four Seasons charges $25 plus tax per person for a two-hour session.

At the Chaska Curling Center, Jeff Isaacson, another former Shuster teammate and a two-time Olympian, reported so much demand for March and April Learn To Curls he had to double the size of the classes, to 48 people from 24. Chaska also charges $25.

Chaska might be the fastest growing of the four curling clubs that have sprouted in the Twin Cities Metro since 2006. Before that, the opportunity to curl was the exclusive domain of the St. Paul Curling Club, which has been around since 1912 and boasts the largest membership in the U.S. at 1,150. Chaska has attracted new curlers steadily since it opened in December 2015. Its membership far exceeded projections and is now up to 1,100, Isaacson said. 

“It’s great,” Isaacson said. “A lot of people are excited about the game. The sport is getting on the radar now. We’ve definitely seen an uptick in emails and a few phone calls, people wanting to get on the ice.”

Dakota Curling Club co-founder Darcy Ellarby said about 200 people attended an introductory clinic at her facility in Lakeville when the Olympics began, and another 300 turned out for another clinic shortly after the Shuster rink won gold. Those went so well the club scheduled a half-dozen Learn To Curl classes at $30 per person. The March 17 session sold out, and the next on April 7 filled as well. A Sunday night Instructional League and a four-week novice league on Wednesdays also sold out.

“We always see a bump after the Olympics, but this is unprecedented,” Ellarby said. Dakota is hosting the U.S. mixed national championships from Saturday through March 31.

St. Paul sold out its two April Learn to Curl sessions well in advance, even after increasing capacity from 24 to 48 like Chaska did. No more are scheduled because St. Paul has all the members it can handle. “We typically don’t do too many [sessions] because our membership doesn’t turn over,” said St. Paul general manager Scott Clasen.

Team Shuster
REUTERS/John Sibley
Left to right: Alternate Joe Polo, lead John Landsteiner, second Matt Hamilton, vice-skip Tyler George, and skip John Shuster posing with their gold medals during the victory ceremony.

At the Burnsville Ice Arena, where Dakota Curling rented ice time before opening its Lakeville facility last year, five of the nine 24-person Learn to Curls in March, April and May sold out at $20 a head, while a sixth is about to. And group outings, mainly by corporations seeking a fun, cheaper, less time-consuming alternative to a summer golf outing, have taken off, recreation facilities manager Dean Mulso said. “That’s what we’ve been really pushing,” he said.

The modest club in Frogtown holds its Learn To Curls only in the fall and is about to close for the season. But interest there has been so great that curling manager Gretchen Pietruszewski is considering adding a third adult league next fall.

None of this surprises USA Curling Chief Executive Officer Rick Patzke. Post-Olympic tournaments and obligations kept Patzke on the road instead of in his Stevens Point, Wisconsin office, so he hasn’t had time to compile a nationwide report on Learn to Curls. But from what he’s heard, about 1,500 attended an open house in the San Francisco Bay Area shortly after the Olympics, and similar events in Kansas City and Atlanta drew hundreds. 

Curling has been growing in the U.S. since the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, with television coverage the last four Olympic cycles as the main driver. Curling clubs now exist in 45 states, all but Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia and New Mexico.

The sport claims a long history in Minnesota, brought by Scottish immigrants to Mapleton in the late 1860s and expanding to St. Paul and the Iron Range in the decades to follow. USA Curling counts about 4,200 curlers in Minnesota, more than any state except Wisconsin, which has almost 4,700. The Minnesota numbers are expected to rise with a sixth Twin Cities club opening in Richfield in June. The gold medal curlers are all Minnesota natives except the Wisconsin-born Hamilton. 

“Since 2002, people have discovered curling in the U.S. as something they could really do,” Patzke said in a telephone interview from the women’s world championships in North Bay, Ont.

“I think our (U.S.) membership in 2001 was under 10,000, and it’s more than 23,500 right now. Every year, we’re gaining.”

And this year, even more. Thanks to a certain kind of medal.

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