NORFOLK — Curling doesn't look that dangerous. Does it?
I didn't think so, that is, until I went to step on the ice and heard this: "Never step on the ice slider foot first. Because you'll die. All right? So go ahead."
That was Jonathan Barbagallo, icemaker and long-time curler at the Norfolk Curling Club, who gave me a quick lesson before men's league play started on Wednesday night at the newly rebuilt club.
Your slider foot is the foot with a plastic slider attached to the bottom of your shoe. We are talking pretty much zero traction here — thus, the warning.
The slider helps you slide forward in a lunge position when you throw the curling stone down the ice. You have a rubber gripper bootie on your other foot; that's the one you step onto the ice with. Then you kind of shuffle around and try not to fall.
I can skate and ski, I told Jon. So how hard could curling be?
"Those skills will not give you any advantage whatsoever, I'm warning you now," Barbagallo said.
All right. At this point, I wondered out loud if I should have brought a helmet. Some people do, he said. And he wasn't kidding.
But I didn't fall. And it was fun. Trying the sport gave me an appreciation of how difficult it is. Essentially, you have to push a 42-pound piece of granite approximately 138 feet and place it to within the inch of where the skip — the team captain — tells you to. And the people sweeping in front of the stone? Honestly, I liked throwing it better. When you sweep, it's not like casually sweeping a floor. You have to get down low and push down hard on the broom, which generates friction, which melts the little pebbles of ice in front of the curling stone so it goes where the skip wants it to. And you have to look where you're going. And not fall.
Thankfully, I didn't have the slider on my foot for that part.
"This is where the cardiovascular comes in," Barbagallo said. "The top curlers at the Olympics, they get pretty bulked up. At that level, they can make a stone go an extra 10-15 feet further than if they didn't sweep it at all. Sweeping, what it does microscopically, is it affects the pebble, all those little bumps that you put down [on the ice]. When you throw a curling stone, by spinning it left or right, it curls, hence the name of the sport. What the sweeping does is it lessens the arc and it elongates it."
My stones didn't actually curl but a few made it down to the house, or the bulls-eye target, on the opposite end of the ice. And did I mention I didn't fall? (I mean, there were a few people actually watching, so the pressure was on).
The Norfolk Curling Club, which was burned down by arsonists two years ago and then rebuilt and reopened this winter, is one of two in the state and has seen a surge of interest due to both the new building and the Winter Olympics.
Barbagallo expected about 300-400 people for an open house Saturday and said about 25 people also showed up for the last Learn to Curl clinic.
"Everybody wants to sit around the couch and say, 'Oh, that sport is too freakin' easy. That's not a sport,'" he said. "Then they're going to come out on Saturday [for the open house], hit the bar, fall on their butts, make fun of each other. If two guys come, one's going to cheer when they throw it all the way down and then they're going to be gone for another four years. That's not the people we want to attract. We want the ones who will come here Saturday, like it, start to get the strategy and get hooked."
The sport cuts across all demographics, at least in Norfolk. There were Springfield College students, a teacher from Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village and some 20- and 30-somethings all out on the ice last weekend at the Learn to Curl clinic.
Barbagallo has been curling for 25 years. His dad, who introduced him to the sport and started curling when he moved to Norfolk in the early 1970s, was out on the ice Wednesday night. There are kids' clinics. The older folks who don't want to lunge to release the rock may use a long stick to do it, saving their knees and their backs from the strain. Anybody can do it.
So I guess, at age 49, I'm in the right demographic. I'll be back.
For more information on the Norfolk Curling Club or learning to curl, go to http://www.rocknorfolk.com.