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Friday, February 22, 2002
Curling fans love to be armchair quarterbacks

By Anne Marie Cruz
ESPN The Magazine

OGDEN, Utah -- Canadian skip Kevin Martin sets up for a shot, as the Canadian fans in fleece red maple leaf hats yell, "Bring it on, big guy!" and drape themselves in their country's flags.

There's 1,000 skips in the audience, and everyone's got their own opinions. But it's usually done with beers behind a glass at a pub. That's why Kevin's down there, and we're all up here.
Curling fan Rob Belyk

"Coo-oo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo," hoots a would-be MacKenzie brother to urge on his fellow countryman. "Take off!"

Meanwhile, Rob Belyk narrows his eyes in concentration. "I've been following the national team for at least 10 years," says Belyk, who came all the way from Saskatoon. The bruiser of a part-time hockey center wears a red and black Ken Tralnberg jersey in honor of Canada's alternate curler. "I curled with Ken for eight years. The number one thing that you have to do to get to their level is be away from your family every weekend. That's why I'm not there. I can't take the time away from home."

Belyk discusses a potential next move with a bystander in terms that might as well be Elvish. "I like the double," Belyk says. "Martin's been playing heaters all week, but he's gotten away from that. I don't understand why."

"I don't like these pussyfoot weights," his fellow fan replies.

Kibbitzing is 100 percent of the fun for curling fans. "There's 1,000 skips in the audience, and everyone's got their own opinions," Belyk says, eyes flashing. "But it's usually done with beers behind a glass at a pub. That's why Kevin's down there, and we're all up here."

Rob Palm, a ref for Tier II Junior A hockey, has watched curling for 15 years, almost every weekend. "I've never played it, though," he admits. "The only thing I do on ice is skate. But I try to guess what he should do, and where he should freeze it. I don't always guess right, but it's fun."

Even the kids today agree.

"It's like chess with the rhythm of bowling," said Zach Larsen, a seventh-grader at Mount Ogden Junior High. Kevin Martin's son, Karrick, has been staying with the Larsens since Feb. 10. "It's not skiing where there's always something happening. But it's cool because of the strategy. You think one thing's going to happen, and then something completely different happens instead."

Zach's expectations were also upended when he tried curling a couple of years ago. "I thought it was going to be so easy, but it's really, really hard," he says. "To throw the stones, you have to balance on the ice. I fell a couple times."

"I can't even watch," said Zach's mom, Lisa. "I'm so nervous, and I'm not even playing."

The Larsens hope that someone will spearhead a campaign to open a curling rink in Ogden, since the Ice Sheet will return to being an arena for figure skating and hockey. Having heard that country clubs and golf courses double as curling rinks in Canada, Lisa already lobbed in a call to the president of the local curling club, suggesting he check out those options.

Belyk's favorite sport is rugby, where he plays the No. 8 position, followed by hockey (he plays center). He knows it's a little weird that curling, in all its noncontact glory, is third on his list.

"All my rugby friends tease me about curling," he says, his cauliflower ears turning slightly pink. "They're just being jerks about it."

Yeah, but don't they have a point?

"Well, anyone can throw a stone," Belyk says. "And sweeping's all about skill and technique, not strength."

So why bother working out, then?

"These are marathons," Belyk says defensively. "They've played the longest of anyone here, and they're three-hour games." Carter Rycroft's wife chimes in that the guys practically live at the gym, lifting weights and honing their cardiovascular fitness.

Then someone hands Belyk a beer. "That's more like it," he says. "But I might throw up, I'm so nervous."

The anxiety is suddenly ratcheted up because Martin is squatting to line up a four-foot draw for the last shot of the match.

"Martin's got ice in his veins," Belyk said. "He'll say, 'Give me the four-foot for the gold,' and take it every time."

Lisa cautions her son. "You better hold on because if Kevin makes this next shot, this place is going to go crazy."

"This is just like Regina," says Belyk, referring to the game in which Martin and his crew won an Olympic berth. Martin's rink won on his expertly executed final four-foot draw, with the game knotted 7-7 in the 10th end.

"That's a gimme," says Belyk, beside himself with anticipation. "That's a two-inch tap-in."

As Belyk fidgets and winces, Martin's throw just squirts past the button. The stands, full of Canadians, went silent. Belyk turns green, and mutters an obscenity.

"It was a little deep, about an inch," Martin, a dead ringer for "Needle Nose" Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day, says later.

Though it looks more like three inches on the replay, none of the journalists are willing to quibble with the man who just lost gold.

You can be sure that's not a problem for Belyk and his beer-guzzling buddies.

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.