The best men’s and women’s curling teams in the U.S. are competing for national championships this week in Cheney, Washington. The sport features four-person teams sliding heavy rocks down a sheet of ice toward a target. It’s one of the most popular sports in Canada and it’s slowly gaining in popularity here in the States.
Eastern Washington University’s student recreation center isn’t typically a venue for curling. Its big sheet of ice is usually used by the university’s club hockey team.
But this week, it’s divided into five lanes, each about 150 feet long and 15 feet wide, with red, white and blue bullseyes at both ends. Ten men’s teams and eight women’s teams rotate playing each other in a round robin tournament.
The men’s defending champion is John Shuster, the biggest name in the American game. His quartet won the 2018 Olympic gold medal and hopes to go to this year’s world championship.
On Saturday night, Shuster’s team won its initial match and Sunday afternoon was matched against the one Northwest team in the tournament, led by Steven Birklid of Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
“I’ve been playing against John since we were 18 years old, so we go back aways. It’s fun to play against this guy. I like stiff competition and it doesn’t get much stiffer than that," Birklid said.
He was speaking not long after Shuster’s team clubbed his quartet 10-to-one.
Shuster lives in Superior, Wisconsin, but he has a familiarity with and comfort level in Washington.
"The Washington state area has been good to me. We won the national championships in Everett a few years back and last year actually won the mixed doubles in Seattle. So far, so good in the state of Washington for me," Shuster said.
Tom Violette, the director of operations for USA Curling, says the curling revival in the U.S. began about 15 years ago when NBC began featuring the sport during its Olympics coverage. But "the gold medal in 2018 really sent it to a whole different level like we haven’t seen," Violette said.
Part of the appeal, he says, is that guys like John Shuster look like regular people.
“We’re not like these track and field stars or weightlifters. A lot of the curlers look like the person next door or the guy you work with. But I think they also, once people watch more and more, they get fascinated with the strategic element as well," he said.
Now Violette is trying to grow a sport whose players don’t get rich as athletes do in many other sports. He hopes that sometime soon, the sport’s best players will be able to make enough money so they can devote all of their time to their craft.
The semifinals in the U.S. Curling championship will be held Friday night and the finals for both men and women will be held Saturday.