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Curling In Charlotte?

Tanner Latham
The sport of curling traces its roots to 16th century Scotland. Photo: Tanner Latham

We've only got a few more days left in the Summer Olympics. But here in Charlotte, one group is focused on a Winter Olympic sport. 

This local curling club takes to the ice, even in the middle of the summer. Outside the Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, the temperature still hovers in the high 80s around 7:30 p.m. But inside, on the ice, it's a brisk 40 degrees.

And rocks are sliding.

Sylvia Jennings is calling shots. She's a curling skip; the captain of her team. And she's yelling commands to two guys with small brooms. They are sweeping furiously in front of a 42-pound granite rock that a third guy has slung down the ice.

Team members use small brooms to brush the ice ahead of the rock to help guide it as it slides.

"The broom actually heats the ice," says Rich Martin, one of the founding members of the Charlotte Curling Association. "When you sweep the ice in front of the rock, you're actually creating friction. When you're sweeping, it causes the rock to speed up. It causes it to glide. You can affect a couple of aspects of the shot."

The group has about 60 members. And many show up here on Friday nights for pick-up games.

In case you're unfamiliar with curling, it's an old Scottish sport dating back to the 16th Century. Think of it like shuffle board on ice. Two teams trade off sliding rocks, attempting to score by landing them inside a designated area.

The sport is huge in Canada and in northern U.S. states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. But Charlotte? Martin still gets strange looks from his neighbors.

"Today, I walk out of the house with my bag and my broom and my jacket on," he says. "It's a cool 96 degrees outside, and there's the pool across the street, and the people at the pool giving me weird looks, and I just raise my broom and say, 'Curling."

Watch this video to get a look at curling in Charlotte.

But the Charlotte Curling Association is not as much of an anomaly as you might suspect. It's actually one of three curling clubs in North Carolina. There are also clubs in Raleigh and Wilmington. That said it's not necessarily populated by native North Carolinians. Only 20 percent of the members are Southern. The rest are transplants. Like Sylvia Jennings, who is from England via Montreal. And Rich Martin from Chicago.

Nationally, the sport is growing. Since the 2002 Olympics, when NBC shined a spotlight on curling, the United States Curling Association's membership has doubled to 16,500 people.

Rick Patzke, the COO of US Curling has a theory. "I think one of the attractions first and foremost with curling is that it's an Olympic sport that probably everybody thinks they could do, and maybe that's their shot at the Olympics," he says. "Versus, not many people in their right mind would throw themselves off a ski jump."

Another attraction is that, like golf, it's a sport for people across a broad range of ages. Take the Charlotte curlers. Ladies in their 20s are curling right alongside men in their 70s and everything in-between. Sylvia Jennings, the skip, is 73 years old. She broke her hip two years ago in a non-curling related accident. She didn't walk for three months, but worked herself back into curling shape. 

"It's very empowering when you slide down the ice, and you throw that rock, and you actually make a shot," she says. "Even now, as long as I've been curling, when I throw that rock down, and it does what it's supposed to do, and it makes a shot, I just feel great. It's just fantastic."

Today, the club kicks off its first bonspiel. That's what you call a curling tournament. And this is a massive deal for a club that was just started two years ago. Rich Martin says the tournament has attracted top curling teams from California, the Midwest, and Canada.

"Believe me, when that last registration came in, and we were sold out, every member of this club just jumped for joy, because it's a tremendous step for such a young club," he says.

And this weekend the bonspiel headliner is a curling rock star: Debbie McCormick, a three-time Olympian and one of the most decorated U.S. women curlers.