A stone's throw to Olympic gold

Curling is a 500-year-old ice sport that's all about skill, strategy, and balance. Curlers (as participants are called) heave a 42-pound stone down the ice.

"It's like a chess match on ice," says Neil Doese, coach of the US women's Olympic curling team. "It's a combination of boccie ball, shuffleboard, and chess."

Curling was born on the frozen ponds, lochs, and marshes of 16th-century Scotland. But the event did not make its Olympic debut until the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. This year in Turin, Italy, 10 men's and 10 women's teams are competing.

"It takes physical strength, but that's not as important as good balance," says Mr. Doese, who has been involved with the sport since 1963."Another area that is important is knowledge of geometry skills, to know the angles the rocks will take when hit."

Each team has four players. Competitors take turns sliding 16 stones (eight for each team) toward a series of circles known as the "house." At the center of the circles is the "button" or "tee."

A team scores a point for each stone that is closer to the tee than a stone of its opponent. Curlers use special brooms to sweep the ice ahead of the gliding stone in order to reduce friction. This guides the stones into the house. One game consists of 10 "ends," which are similar to baseball innings.

The 2006 US Olympic women's team is the youngest in history, with an average age of 23. The team's 24-year-old captain, or "skip," is Cassie Johnson.

As her teammates throw the stones, Ms. Johnson will stand at the other endof the ice and provide a target with her broom. She'll help guide the team's sweepers and may step in to help them. In addition to setting up theteam's strategy, she throws the final two shots.

The team's "lead," 23-year-old Maureen Brunt, throws the first two stones and then sweeps for the three remaining teammates. "I set up the end so that we have something to work with later," she says. "I make sure the rocks are in the house so the other team doesn't have anything."

Along with the lead, the "second" helps put the skip's strategy into motion. The "third"is often called the "vice skip"; he or she fine-tunes the skip's plan, which may include knocking out an opponent's stone. The vice skip also takes over the role of calling commands when the skip throws the final two stones.

Although the US women are out of contention for a medal, they tied an Olympic record for margin of victory in an 11-3 win over Italy.

Curling is a popular sport in Canada, although the Canadian men have yet to win Olympic gold. (They won silver in 1998 and 2002.) The Canadian women claimed gold in 1998 and bronze in 2002. This year, both Canadian teams are contenders. The men face stiff competition from Finland, Britain, and the US; and the women from Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland.

Round-robin play began last week. The women's medal matches will be Thursday, and the men's will take place Friday.

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