There are four sounds you’ll hear the most every night at the Triangle Curling Club: sweeping, screaming, smashing rocks and the endless hum of an industrial-sized dehumidifier – that’s how the club keeps the ice cold and dry. in a state with the climate of North Carolina.
On a recent evening at club in southeast Durham, Sarah Cornel shouted instructions as her teammates pressed their brooms and brushed hard against the ice. These furious sweeps help alter the speed and trajectory of a large granite boulder, pushed across the ice by another team member.
“It’s such a fun sport,” says Cornel, a founding member of the club. “He combines athleticism and strategy; it’s really unique like that. You have to read the ice much like you read golf greens. You have to figure out the next shot, but you still have to have the athleticism to land the shot.
It is a sport practiced, mainly, in very cold places. But for more than 25 years, the Triangle Curling Club has been a home for people in central North Carolina who have caught the curling craze.
Some club members grew up with the game in the north or became interested in the sport after seeing it on television. Every four years with the Winter Olympics, the club sees a spike in interest, and this year – as the games are held in Beijing – is no different. Many of the club’s upcoming “Try Curling” lessons are already booked up quickly.
“It’s harder than it looks, but for most people it’s less frustrating than your first golf lesson,” says long-time club member and volunteer Sue Mitchell.
The club closed for 18 months at the start of the pandemic, but has rebounded in recent months, hosting curling league games almost every night of the week. Just in time to attract new members, the club is back on its feet – or rather, back on the sheet.
learn to loop
Think of curling as a cousin of shuffleboard — or a distant cousin of the cornhole. The object of the game is to get more stones from your team closer to the button in the house than the opposing team in each end.
Still puzzled after reading this? Here is a quick explanation:
- Stones are those large spherical objects released onto the ice. Sometimes called boulders, they usually have colored handles – usually yellow and red. They weigh between 38 and 44 pounds.
- A broom or brush are just that. After a stone is thrown, two teammates walk and slide with it, sweeping past it to create friction on the ice to alter its course or keep it moving.
- Home is the collection of rings at the opposite end of the ice. The outer ring is 12 feet in diameter. Inside is an 8 foot ring, a 4 foot ring and the very center – also known as the knob. This is the goal of every team. Think of the button as a target.
- Oh, and the last stone thrown is called the hammer. Typically, it is used to knock opposing rocks out of the house.
- An end is like an inning in baseball. In each end, each team throws eight stones and a score is taken.
Sarah Cornel started curling in her mid-twenties in Ottawa, Canada. And she assumed that when she moved to the Tar Heel State in 1992, her curling days were over.
And then one day she opened an edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.
“We had no idea. I never thought there would be curling in North Carolina. And we noticed in the paper – remember when you looked at the newspaper ads – there was an ad that said, ‘Come and learn about curling,’” Cornel said. “So we arrived and there were a handful of other people who arrived.”
It was 1995. The ad was written by Evelyn Nostrand who, like Cornel, had cowered up north. Nostrand and her husband John were originally from Connecticut and had just moved to Pittsboro. They had the ambition to found a curling club when they discovered that none already existed in the Triangle.
About 35 people responded to that original ad, including Cornel and her husband Brian Chick. In February 1996, the founding members of the Triangle Curling Club threw their first rocks and played their first season at the Daniel Boone Ice Center in Hillsborough.
The club was nomadic for the first two decades of its existence. The members hunkered down wherever they could find ice in central North Carolina — a search that took them from Garner to Wake Forest and everywhere in between. And everywhere they went, the club found themselves competing for ice time with skaters and hockey players. And they had to deal with lines and deformations in the ice caused by Zamboni skates and machines.
“You would ask someone who plays Pinehurst to go play putt-putt,” says longtime member Sue Mitchell. “You know, we don’t want marks and lines on our ice, just like a golfer wouldn’t. It’s a bit like a golf green. You want it to be as pristine as possible”
The club quickly realized that – to survive, prosper and grow its membership – it would need to purchase its own space dedicated specifically to curling.
In 2015, that dream finally came true when the club raised enough money to buy land. After gaining rezoning approval from the City of Durham, he built his site, complete with four curling rinks, changing rooms and a bar and lounge. Some of the stadium seating inside the clubhouse is recycled from the Carolina Panthers stadium in Charlotte.
The club has no full-time employees and is instead made up of members who also serve as volunteers. Mitchell, for example, helps with marketing and media relations. Others work at the bar, pouring pints and opening beers after games. Another group of volunteers takes care of the ice, cleaning it and painting it as needed.
“Because you’re all contributing here, it makes things a lot more fun, a lot more social,” says 76-year-old curler Mike Hartman, one of the club’s other founding members who learned how to curl while he was in the Air Force, stationed in Germany at a Canadian base.
Curling has not only grown in popularity in North Carolina. Other southeastern states — like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Virginia and South Carolina — all have clubs. In North Carolina, there are also curling clubs in Charlotte and Wilmington.
The Triangle Curling Club typically sees its membership increase every four years, when the Winter Olympics are televised nationwide. Current club president Chris DiPierro, 45, caught the curling bug in 2010, following the Winter Games in Vancouver. He and his wife saw curling on TV and thought, “That looks pretty fun.
“It’s as fun as it looks when you see it there,” DiPierro says. “So we hope to see the same again [this year]. The American teams could still do us a favor and win again.
“You have to come and try it once,” he added. “You’re not going to be great the first time; you have to be okay with that. But it continues to be fun.
The club saw its membership peak shortly after the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, where American men won gold in curling for the first time ever. It has attracted newcomers through its “Try Curling” classes and events where a company or group of people can rent the ice. Eventually, the club grew by a third and its membership grew to 330 members.
The rise of COVID
When March 2020 arrived and the word coronavirus became common vocabulary, the club – like so many other businesses – decided to shut down.
“A lot of curling clubs get paid a little bit more by paycheck,” DiPierro said. “We were lucky to have so much interest in leasing that we were able to choose not to open for an entire year. We survived that pretty well.
In September 2021, after consultation with medical experts, the club reopened. In addition to brooms and shoe clips, masks have also become part of mandatory curling attire. Durham City has its own mask mandate, and the club has also taken the extra step of requiring vaccinations after surveying its members, according to DiPierro.
“Like 90% wanted a vaccine requirement,” he said. “It’s like, okay, that’s kind of easy. It turns out that’s kind of the obvious decision now.
The club’s membership has been hit during the pandemic, but it still has fewer than 300 members, aged between 7 and 78.
Andrea Cornel is one of the youngest members. Daughter of Sarah Cornel and Brian Chick, she is 19 years old and is a biology student at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I didn’t really have a choice. When the building opened, they kind of dragged me here,” she laughs of her parents. “And then I started curling in the league with my mom.”
Andrea Cornel says a big appeal of curling is the community.
“I mean, we all talk on the ice. Everyone is so nice,” she says. “The other teams will congratulate you on a good shot. And then you stay up afterwards and talk and hang out and just get to know people.
For curling fans, these are the sport’s biggest selling points: it’s accessible to people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and skill levels. And after each game, the losers clean the ice while the winners buy the first round of beers.
All you need are shoes, a broom and – as Sarah Cornel says – “a bit of flexibility”.