The crowds might not have been huge for the Saturday morning games of the Curling World Cup, but the fans in the stands of Ralston Arena were definitely dedicated to the sport.
Fans like Timothy Jacques, a 52-year-old Bellevue man who’s been curling for more than 20 years. He’s been a member of the Aksarben Curling Club — founded in 1958 — since the days it operated out of a barn in what is now Aksarben Village. The club now plays at Baxter Arena.
Curling, Jacques said, is a sport for people who want “something that’s a little more relaxed.”
“It’s got a nice pace to it,” he said. “I go here to a curling game, I know what strategy’s coming up; I know what they’ve got to do; I know what the struggles are, and I know what the drama and buildup is going to be.”
But to the layman, the sport can look a little weird.
Walking into the Curling World Cup — a five-day event that ends Sunday — you’ll find teams from several different nations shouting in various languages (the Swedes and Americans are the loudest). They’re discussing strategy while pushing 42-pound granite rocks across 150-foot sheets of ice, while players with brooms sweep ahead of the sliding rock to make it travel farther, ideally to the center of the bull’s-eye on the other end.
Even to someone who’s never seen the sport played, it’s easy to pick up the gist of it.
“It’s just like a bad-ass game of shuffleboard,” said Omahan Drew Olson, 32.
Drew and his wife, Karin Olson, got free tickets to the event and decided to check it out. Neither of them had seen curling live before.
“It’s actually pretty strategic and fun to watch,” Drew said. “I hope they keep having it here. The Omaha community really embraces these types of events. They have the equine event, the U.S. Olympic (swim) trials. I could see this event getting steam.”
The Curling World Cup is a new competition held between men’s, women’s and mixed doubles teams. The Ralston Arena event is the second of three legs ahead of the grand final, which takes place next year in Beijing.
Last year, Baxter Arena hosted the Olympic curling team trials. Are we on the brink of a curling explosion in Omaha?
“The Olympic trials did so well,” said Terry L. Davis, director of communications for USA Curling. “You guys are a sports-loving town. That’s part of the reason we come here.”
John Shuster, the skip (lead strategist) of the USA curling team, said Baxter Arena and Ralston Arena have been “first-class facilities.”
After last year’s trials, Shuster’s team went on to become the first American curling team to win gold at the Olympics.
“Obviously, people up in Canada, everybody knows (curling) because it’s on TV all the time,” Shuster said. “To get a chance to curl in the U.S. and get to share the sport I love … with the rest of the country is always really special.”
Katrina Frlan, an 11-year-old from Ottawa, Ontario, is in town to share the World Cup with her followers. Frlan hosts a curling-focused YouTube channel called “The Lazy Handle Show,” and she was easily one of the most knowledgeable curling experts we met.
“I got into curling because of my dad,” she said. “I tried it once, and I loved it, and I always wanted to talk about it. So I started a YouTube channel.”
Frlan said that while she is rooting for Canada at the tournament (or bonspiel), she is, as a member of the press, trying to remain as objective as possible.
Another fan cheering on the teams this weekend has a storied history with the sport.
Omahan Eileen Whisman, 95, started curling with the Aksarben Curling Club in 1969.
“I was in my 40s, and a friend from church invited me to come try curling on a Sunday afternoon,” Whisman said. “I fell in love with the game right away.”
She said she loves the camaraderie of the sport, that teams will applaud their opponents when they make a good shot.
Whisman curled for the next 32 years, traveling all over the U.S. to compete in bonspiels. She’s remained a big fan of the sport.
Now a resident at the Via Christe assisted living facility in Omaha, she displays a curling stone outside her room. The chance to see two world-class curling events live — she also went to the trials last year — has been a treat.
“I know my days are limited,” she said. “So I appreciate it.”