Wicks? Skips? Decoding the curious sport of curling.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For those of you who harbor any doubts about the finer points of curling, or even what it is, or how anyone might find this ice-bound version of shuffleboard passionately exciting, here is a suggestion:

Come to Pinerolo outside Turin, the site of the curling rink at the Winter Olympics, and sit in the stands with the Shuster clan.

John Shuster is lead shooter on the US men's curling team. Watching him in this opening round-robin game Monday against Norway are his mom, his dad, his sister and her husband, three aunts, one uncle, and two cousins. Any one of them would be glad to fill you in.

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On this day, the Shusters and dozens of their friends make their presence heard as soon as their team enters the ice rink. Hooting horns, ringing cowbells, and issuing piercing whistles, they clearly out-cheer fans of the other seven teams competing. They even drown out the bagpiper supporting the British team, made up entirely of Scots.

Then they set about their jobs as ambassadors for the obscure sport, which achieved Olympic status only eight years ago, enlightening anyone who shows any curiosity.

Curlers tend to speak their own language, using terms like "hackweight takeouts" and "wicks" and "double roll-ins." It is a vocabulary spoken mainly in Minnesota, the state from which every one of the 10 Olympic US curlers - men and women - hail.

It is best understood in Bemidji, Minn., a town you have probably heard of only if you curl yourself, where half the US Olympic players live. And at these Games, it is largely a family dialect: The women's team includes two sisters; and Bob Fenson coaches the men's team that his son Pete "skips" (captains).

You might think that all the jargon is designed to disguise the essential simplicity of a game in which four players each slide two stones weighing 44 pounds down an ice rink toward a bulls-eye target, occasionally knocking opponents' stones out of the way in the process.

But Chris Freeman (one of Mr. Shuster's aunts) speaks plain English as she explains the strategic subtleties of the sport to a baffled spectator from California.

"People think this is a very simple game, but it's not," she insists. "It's a game that involves a lot of physics, a lot of precision; it's like a game of chess where you try to place stones and set up shots that are difficult for your opponents to play."

The Californian, Margit Allen, admits she has come to watch only because the Olympic package she bought included tickets to the curling competition and she didn't want to waste them. But she is soon converted.

"This has always been a bit of a mystery sport to me," she says. "But it's clear there is a lot of strategy involved. Other sports seem so straightforward now."

To this novice observer, the strategy takes a good deal of explaining. But there is no denying the grace of the shooters as they glide on one knee, arm outstretched, their eyes fixed anxiously on the polished stone sliding agonizingly slowly down the track.

Their calm elegance contrasts with the somewhat comical fashion in which the two sweepers frantically scrub the ice in front of the stone, responding to the urgently shouted instructions of their skip, warming the stone's path so that it slides further and straighter.

As soon as you understand the basics, you appreciate how the tension mounts, stone by stone. "Everything changes after each shot," points out Tom Shuster, John's dad, a club curler himself. "You are never doing the same thing over and over."

Then he joins in the family cacophony as the Norwegians, the defending Olympic champions, concede defeat in the face of an overwhelming US lead.

"It's great to be here with people who are really passionate about the sport," says Joe Previtali, a Catholic seminarian who has never watched a game of curling before. "This is the genius of the Olympics, this kind of support from family and friends."

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