By Sue Botos
With the 2014 Winter Olympics weeks away, most fans are looking forward to watching athletes compete in thrill-filled sports like downhill skiing and figure skating. But count on Magnificat High School junior Claire Visconti to be checking out the strategic action on the curling sheet.
“We call it ‘chess on ice,’” the Bay Village resident and competitive curler said in a recent interview. Visconti’s team won the Great Lakes Curling Association’s Junior Women’s Playdown, or regional title, and will be one of 10 squads competing in the USA Curling Junior National Championships in Seattle Jan. 25 through Feb. 2.
The team took two of three games for the regional title. “The first game we won 11-1 and the second was even more of a challenge, but we pulled off a win with a score of 10-4,” Visconti stated.
Curling traces its roots back 400 years to Scotland, and was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1998. During the 2010 Vancouver games, Visconti got curious about curling, which is extremely popular in Canada, but virtually unknown south of its border.
“In seventh grade, I told my dad I could do this as a joke,” recalled Visconti, who eventually slid into the Mayfield Curling Club in South Euclid to give the game a shot. “I tried the sport because I thought that it would be really easy. When I tried it, it was actually really hard, but also lots of fun,” Visconti said, adding that she couldn’t believe how sore her legs were after her first session.
Visconti said that what looks like one person sliding across the ice, pushing a large stone, while teammates furiously sweep in its path, is actually a strategic game, consisting of two four-member teams. The squads alternate throwing stones down the ice, or “sheet,” until each team has thrown eight. Similar to a baseball inning, this is an “end,” and there can be eight to 10 ends in a game. The stone is thrown toward a bull’s-eye, or “the house,” at the end of the sheet, the object being to get more stones closer to the center of the house than an opponent. The strategy part comes when trying to knock an opponent’s stone out of the house, and games can last two to three hours.
The four-person squad, explained Visconti, consists of the “skip,” who calls the plays; the “vice-skip,” who calls plays when the skip throws; the “second” and the “lead.” Visconti is lead for her team, throwing the first two stones of each end. After a throw, teammates use brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone, allowing it to slide faster. Players supply their own brooms and shoes, with one smooth sole for sliding, the other for gripping the ice. Visconti said the stones weigh about 44 pounds and are provided by the host club.
Beginning with teams “just thrown together,” Visconti played in her first “bonspiel,” similar to a tournament, in Columbus in 2012. Last year, she competed at the Great Lakes Curling Association Regional Playdowns and attracted the attention of a team from Midland, Mich., which asked her to join at the beginning of this season.
“I was thrilled to be asked to play on their team,” recalled Visconti, who represents the Mayfield Curling Club. Thanks to technology, she keeps in touch with teammates and Canadian coach Jeff Mason via e-mail and video for a type of “cyberpractice.”
“He’s such a good coach. He knows all of our strengths and weaknesses,” she said of Mason, who sends the teams instructions and various drills to practice. Visconti said that her teammates did travel to practice with her during the second weekend in January at Mayfield, where she plays three times a week.
While practice can take place virtually, competition takes some travel time. This season, Visconti has played five different bonspiels, two in London, Ontario, and three in Midland, Mich.
Visconti plans to keep curling, pointing out that the sport can be played by almost anyone at any age. “I once played against a lady at Mayfield who was 87,” she recalled.