On Saturday USA Curling will crown its men’s and women’s champions after a week of competition at Eastern Washington University.
The game is in growth mode. It’s flying high after an American team won Olympic gold in 2018. Its governing body hopes this newfound popularity will allow curling to become more established, long term, in the U.S.
Curling originated in Scotland about 400 years ago, but Canada is the modern-day powerhouse, at least on the men’s side. It has won more world championships in the last 60 years than any other nation. Scotland, the U.S., Norway and Sweden are on the next level. Swedish teams have won the last two men’s world championships. The defending Olympic champion is a team led by American John Shuster. He’s a Wisconsin native whose group won gold in 2018. Shuster is in Cheney this week, trying to get back to the world championships, where his team won bronze in 2016.
He says his winning an Olympic gold medal elevated the visibility of curling in the U.S.
“You know, for the first year, we did a lot of things, appearances and a lot of fun stuff to help grow the game, have events here in places that don’t have a huge curling club presence and look out into the stands and see 500-1,000 people in here watching curling. That’s the effect I think we’re starting to see,” he said.
Curling has been off and on in popularity here in the Inland Northwest. There’s an Inland Northwest Curling Club. The Granite Curling Club in Seattle is one of the most successful local clubs in the nation. Tom Violette was based there for years. He has national championships and a world championship bronze medal on his resume. His son Luc is still based in Seattle and has won five consecutive junior national titles.
Now Tom Violette helps to promote the game and build its fanbase in the U.S.
“The Olympics has basically done for curling what Tiger Woods has done for golf. We’re seeing younger and younger athletes coming into the game and much more athleticism than when I was playing in my prime,” Violette said.
One of those young players is Steven Birklid, who is the only Northwest skip, or captain, in the Cheney competition. He’s from Mountlake Terrace, Washington.
Birklid says the next step in the growth of the game is to take advantage of its newfound popularity and increase the amount of money flowing to the sport, through sponsorships and other things. He hopes that, someday, at least the best players will be able to support themselves while playing full-time.
For now, his main paycheck comes from his Fast Signs franchise, which makes vinyl graphics and car wraps and that kind of thing.
“Owning my own shop is helpful for traveling and having the schedule flexibility. It’s pretty hard to be a full-time curler when you don’t have funding. The only people that can really do it are people who have that flexibility, like John, like myself," Birklid said.
John Shuster jokes that he married up. His wife is his family’s main breadwinner. He stays at home with their two small children in between training sessions.
“My major goal is to win an Olympic gold medal. Now check that off. The subgoal of that was to make curling be close enough to mainstream where it’s more than just one or two kids coming out of a curling class like we did growing up, who maybe have that opportunity to do something like, my teammates and myself, to curl almost like a full-time job," Shuster said.
Curling’s trajectory is in the right direction. This competition is being live streamed on the USA Curling website. Curling has become a regular part of the Winter Olympics’ curling coverage of NBC. It even has its own weekly TV show, Curling Night in America, Friday nights on the NBC Sports Network.