covid19 · fitness

Learning About Curling

By Elan Paulson

For my whole life I knew nothing about the sport beyond that it resembled the shuffleboard table in my grandparents’ basement and it was a Winter Olympics sport (again). I hadn’t even seen the Canadian romantic comedy, Men with Brooms (2002), with Leslie Nielson.

Then, in 2020—pandemic year 1–I joined a curling club. I am not amazing at curling, but thanks to many supportive players I picked it up faster than I picked up soccer as an adult.

Now in my second season of curling, I’ve discovered that this sport is growing its inclusivity and fitness focus, yet remains rooted in etiquette and community. Let me tell you a little about what I’ve learned about curling!

Curling is for Many People

Curling is an olympic and paralympic sport, with medals for four-person women and men’s teams. Men and women can play and compete together in mixed leagues and on mixed doubles teams (two people instead of four), since finesse matters as much as strength.

Curling is also a recreational sport for youths, seniors, and everyone in between. Learn to curl clinics are put on annually by curling clubs, and online information for new curlers is widely available.

There are various support tools for all types of curlers. These “sticks” and “crutches” aid the release of the curling rock that travels down the 146 to 150 feet of ice, providing stability and balance for players. The supports also alleviate pressure on the knees and body, giving all kinds of bodies a chance to curl.

Screenshot of Google search for “curling sticks and crutches”

Curling associations, such as Curling Canada, encourage the sport’s accessibility. The Ontario Curling Council explains that wheelchair curling leagues and curling competitions are available for those who are non-ambulant or can only walk short distances. Canada boasts talented, award-winning visually impaired and wheelchair teams.

In terms of gender inclusivity, my teammate tells me that some larger clubs have open and LGBTQ+ leagues. More clubs are also drafting inclusion policies, showing that this once traditional and gender-siloed sport is striving to grow and change with the times.

Curling is in Many Places

Curling clubs have existed in Canada since 1807, with the first curling club located in Montreal. Today, you can find curling clubs throughout Canada, but more than half of these clubs are still located in small towns.

Sports and recreation foster not only healthy activity but also local community. Studies have shown that curling supports the health and wellness of rural women and older adults. I hear that many people grew up with curling in the family (so kids learn to play whether they want to or not).

In the country and the city, curling has a reputation for courtesy. League games are non-refereed. Curlers are supportive and unpretentious. (When you throw a rock really well, you celebrate by complimenting your sweepers.) It is customary for the winning team to buy the first round of drinks for the losing team after the game. (This tradition of sitting together post-game was temporarily suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Fitness of Curling

Curling has a reputation as a sport for being more recreational than rigorous. However, the author of this article from The Cut describes how throwing and sweeping rocks over two hours led her to conclude curling is a good interval workout. One study that measured participant heart rates after sweeping suggests that fitness training can help avoid fatigue during curling. At the competitive level, where athletes curl 10 ends a game and play multiple games in a tournament, mental and physical training is now standard.

The media is increasingly hyping the athleticism of the curling, and paying more attention to the bodies of players. An NPR article from 2014 describes the need for curlers to be extremely fit, not just for the sport but for the tight uniforms. The fitness element of curling also got press when “Superwoman” curler Rachael Homan won curling titles while 8-months pregnant and then again just 3 weeks after delivery.

My Oura fitness tracker ring tells me I don’t yet get a high intensity workout from curling, but I only play one 8-end game once a week. Watching others, I’m pretty sure that I would be a stronger sweeper and have more controlled throws if I were in better shape. So I might pick up one of the books available on curling training and strategy, such as Fit to Curl (2016) or Curl to Win (2010).

Still Learning about Curling

Curling was going to be my “retirement sport”—in another 15 or 20 years. But without other regular indoor winter sports to keep me active during the COVID-19 pandemic, I advanced my timeline (not the retirement part, sadly). I’m glad I did. It’s been a physical and social activity that has had many benefits for me.

Thanks to my teammates and my league, I am eager to continue to learn more about this sport, which is in fact way more complex than grandparents’ basement shuffleboard. I am grateful to the St. Thomas Curling Club, which has gone to great lengths to adjust the rules and maintain the safety of its members during the pandemic.

If you curl, what brought you to the sport? If you don’t, would you like to try?

fitness

Taekwondo is a little strange these days

I had to do a lot of thinking before I returned to Taekwondo this fall.

Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, we have the advantage of isolation/low population density and that, combined with early strict measures, kept our COVID numbers low overall (fewer than 300 cases in a population of approximately 500,000.)

So, this fall is finding us slowly getting back into something that looks similar to the old normal. It’s a more complex normal – physical distancing, elaborate sanitization, and more rules than you could shake a stick at- but it does bear a certain resemblance to the before-times.

Kids are in school, Guide and Scout groups are starting up, you can eat at restaurants but capacity is reduced, a lot of things are happening outdoors and there is tape on the floor everywhere.

When my instructor contacted me in August to tell me that classes would start again in September, I couldn’t commit right away. I wanted to see my friends from class, I wanted to get back into that routine again, and I wanted to re-sharpen my skills. But, I didn’t want to do something foolish and take a health risk so I could punch things in my fighting pajamas.

A selfie by the author. She is wearing a white dobok (martial arts clothing) and a white mask and her hair is pulled back in a bandana.  Two masked people   in doboks are far away in the background.
Myself, Mr. Power and Ms. L. Zurel during one of our breaks. I only realized after I took this photo that I didn’t even try to smirk or smile. Everything feels a bit more ‘serious business’ these days, doesn’t it?

I relaxed a bit when I saw the list of rules for the school. The timing of classes has changed (to accomodate cleaning between groups), there is tape on the floor to mark a distanced spot for each student, we have to wear masks on the way in and out and during breaks and we are welcome to leave our masks on all during class (at 2m apart, we technically don’t need to be masked.)  All of that helped but the thing that made the most difference for me was the fact that we are prohibited from breathing out sharply when we execute a move. That was one of my biggest concerns – the idea that I would be in a room of people projecting their breath out forcefully into the room.

So, I have been to about half of the classes* so far and it is great to be back but it is also very strange.

The class is both familiar and unfamiliar. It’s like when you dream about something that you do in real life – it has basically the same shape and the same purpose but the elements aren’t quite right.

The 2m difference in spacing is just slightly more that we would usually be apart when we are Doing our patterns. So my friend Kevin, ahem, Mr. James, is in the correct place on my right hand side but he’s too far away from me. So the unconscious cues that I would normally get from his movement under normal circumstances are now gone.

A photo of beige flooring with two pieces of red duct tape  approximately  2 m apart from each other.
Usually, only the youngest students have duct tape on the floor to keep them from piling up on each other during kicking drills. Now, there are duct tape markers to indicate a spot for each student.

I’m slightly too far away from my instructor to see them well without my glasses on. I have to keep my glasses off because I’m wearing a mask and the steaming up is too irritating. (Yes,I leave my mask on the whole time, I just feel better that way.) This isn’t a crisis, there aren’t too many subtle movements that I need to see, but it adds to the weird feeling I am experiencing.

The weirdest thing though, the most eerie, is the fact that the class is quiet. Under normal circumstances as we are doing our patterns everyone is breathing out on almost every move. So the classroom is filled with the sounds of this rhythmic breathing. Now we are all quiet. I’ve noticed myself adding comments or slightly nervous laughter more often and I am working on reigning that in. I guess you could say that the patterns could be more meditative now but it is hard to adjust to that idea in a context that was not particularly meditative before. For right now, it feels a little like something is wrong, like we are sombre as a reaction to something (and I guess we are.)

I imagine I will adjust to this over time. After a while, it probably won’t seem so weird, the silence will just become part of how class works. But, for right now, it really makes me conscious of how things have changed. And it makes me aware of the sensory clues I was picking up from other people. 

If you had asked me before, I would have said that I spent too much time glancing at other people to make sure I was on track with a given pattern* (it was a habit I was trying to overcome.) However, now I am realizing that hearing breathing patterns and judging people’s proximity were also a big part of staying on track with both the pattern itself and with the group as a whole.

But, all of that being said I really appreciate being able to return to class – especially since so many people around the world are still unable to have any sense of normalcy in their days. 

And, I especially appreciate the flexibility my instructors and my classmates are offering right now. 

Everyone in the class is able to participate at their own level of risk-tolerance. My comfort/lack of comfort with the current risk level means that I am leaving my mask on, that I am a bit rusty in my movements because my ambient anxiety affects my concentration, and that I could not participant in certain drills that would bring me ‘too close’  (for my comfort) to another masked person. All of that has been fine with everyone else. We are all being very careful of everyone else’s feelings, needs, and comfort levels and that is what makes our classes work well right now.

I’m ending this with a kiya because we can’t shout it in class these days.

KIYA!

*I misjudged the weight of something while cleaning my shed and wonked out my shoulder for a while so I stayed home from class a few times.

**While that could be interpreted as a lack of confidence on my part, that is not exactly it. Sometimes, I lack confidence, but mostly I think my challenges with proprioception keep me glancing around. Sometimes, for example, I firmly believe that my foot is in the right spot for a given stance but something twigs me to the fact that it isn’t – a quick glance at my neighbour lets me correct something that I can’t quite figure out by how my body feels.)