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Stone-cold participants swept away by seriousness


PINEROLO, Italy-- --I couldn't stand the idea of being late, so I rose before the sun. This was Rivalry Day at the Olympics, and the United States was hitting the ice against Canada first thing in the morning. Not something I was about to miss.

Forty-five minutes outside Turin, the teams took the rink, four American beauties and four Canadian brutes, plus enough brooms to clean the Mojave Desert.

You know the sport - these rink rebels, goons of the Games, Olympic outlaws. Most of us grew up practicing some curling, even if we didn't realize it. Ever swept the driveway? You've curled. Kind of. Congrats to you.

By now, most of America knows curling has nothing to do with irons, perms or weightlifting. It's horseshoes on ice (which is only slightly less funny than horses on ice).

Competitors - called "throwers" - slide big stones - 42-pounders called "big stones" - at a target - called the "house." As the stone makes its way toward the house, teammates sweep the ice in the stone's path with a broom, which controls the speed and direction of the stone (and keeps the ice remarkably clean!). The opposing team can use its stones to knock others away from the house.

The first thing you need to know about curling is that it moves at the pace of a broken-down snowmobile. The second thing: It's hypnotically addictive.

Sitting in the stands here were three dozen Italian schoolchildren. They didn't know what was going on, either, but they were chanting, anyway: "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"

Five seconds after learning the rules, I felt comfortable enough to call for a quadruple takeout maneuver. While it might be technically impossible, the Americans needed it badly. After the first end - an "end" is like a bowling frame; there are 10 of them in a game - Canada led 5-0.

That didn't strike me as a big deal. I was told, though, that it's quite rare and no one around me could believe what had just transpired. You'd have thought the ice melted and we were all drowning.

I had to get closer. I needed to move, needed to really tap into the energy. And besides, these other curling reporters keep talking about stats and their fantasy curling teams. I tucked my media credential in my shirt and headed for the stands.

Down below, the Americans were curdling before our very eyes. I stood next to Liz Johnson, who gave birth to the biggest things to hit Bemidji, Minn., since Paul Bunyan and Babe, his big blue ox. As the legend goes, the giant lumberjack was born there and formed a lake with a single footprint.

But trust me, Babe doesn't have anything on Cassie and Jamie Johnson. If my tongue weren't braided around itself, I might've asked one of them to be my valentine.

The U.S. team is led by Cassie, a toothy 24-year-old. Her sister Jamie, 25, serves as second-in-command. If there was ever a Barbie-Goes-Curling doll, either sister could serve as the mold.

The Johnsons were getting their stones rocked. Cassie and Jamie appeared calm. They could be napping for all I know. In the stands, their mother was noticeably nervous. Liz Johnson kept shifting her weight from side to side.

"They're both very patient," Liz says of her daughters. "They have this attitude that won't let anything upset them right now."

No, they weren't bothered, but they probably should've been. The Americans were getting creamed on the ice, suddenly 7-3. The Canadians had just cleared their bench (which consists of one player). And the worst part: The schoolchildren have changed their chant. "Can-a-da! Can-a-da!" the little turncoats yelled.

The Canadian curlers encouraged the children, smiling wide and laughing.

After the end of the eighth end, the Americans conceded, 11-5, their second big loss in as many days. It's a major dent to their medal hopes. Team USA didn't seem too sad or upset or much of anything. They were headed to lunch with family members, one of the sisters reported.

By now, they've heard all of the curling jokes. Frankly, it's getting old for them. "[Others] don't understand the sport at all," Jamie Johnson said.

Maybe we don't all get the technical intricacies and the strategy nitty-gritty. But many of the competitors don't get the context. They refuse to embrace their sport's quirkiness.

Fans have - there were scalpers at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. And television has, too - more than 50 hours of curling coverage is being broadcast during these Games.

But the participants are relatively humorless.

"It's a lot harder than it looks," says Johnson.

Which is why the rest of us leave it to the professionals.

But until the United States wins a medal, there's no shame in a curious chuckle.

If the Americans - those emotionless cowgirls of curling - really want to elevate their sport, here's some advice: Forget everyone who's casting stones. Focus your efforts on throwing them.


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