Commentary

Team shares passion, close quarters

Updated: February 21, 2010, 11:36 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Call it Phi Gamma Brooma, curling's most cramped fraternity.

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Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe U.S. curling team is close on and off the ice.

To make ends meet, U.S. curlers John Shuster, Jeff Isaacson and Jason Smith crowded into a two-bedroom apartment in Duluth, Minn., the past six months -- Shuster, and his fiancée, Sara Marshall, sharing one of the bedrooms while Isaacson and Smith slept in bunk beds in the other. To further the frat house image, a fifth, non-curling person has been sleeping on the couch.

The only thing missing is Dean Wormer placing the team on double-secret probation.

"It's a little weird actually," Isaacson said, "but we're just trying to save money."

Smith and Isaacson's room is small -- about 10 feet by 14 feet -- but Smith says that at least the bunk beds mean, "we don't have to cuddle with each other. When we were in junior curling, we'd save money by getting one room with four or five guys in the room.

"You walk in and we have a mini-fridge to the right. The bunk beds are there. There's a small path to the window and a TV. We pretty much live out of a suitcase with all our clothes in it."

The fourth curler on the U.S. team (currently struggling in round-robin play), John Benton, lives at his own place, but then, he pretty much has to. There wasn't any room for him in the apartment.

The living arrangement was actually better for Isaacson than it was last year, when the team was busy qualifying for the Olympics and he was driving an hour each way from his home to practice three nights a week and crashing on the couch or a cot at Shuster's apartment the other four nights. "It's very nice to have a bed," Isaacson said. "A bunk bed is an upgrade from last year."

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin do not share bunk beds. But then, people pay a lot of money to watch hockey. Not so in curling, where, as Shuster puts it, "We would never have an agent come up and say he wants to represent us."

To raise money, the team personally sold sponsorships to local businesses last year for about $500 to $1,000. Among the sponsors were an assisted living facility, a document destruction company and a Ford dealership but not, surprisingly, Chico's Bail Bonds. Having qualified as the U.S. Olympic team last winter, they were able to secure a single sponsorship from the Mall of America, though actually spending money at some of the mall's stores remains more of a challenge.

The curlers receive stipends of about $300 a month from the U.S. Olympic Committee and scramble to make ends meet. Isaacson substitute teaches for a whopping $100 a day when the team's schedule allows it (which isn't often), Shuster worked in the pro shop and mowed the fairways at a golf club and -- how great is this? -- he and Smith occasionally tend the bar at the Duluth Curling Club.

This is why curlers are so likable. Imagine going to a game at Joe Louis Arena and buying your beer from Pavel Datsyuk.

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Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty ImagesAlthough the U.S. has struggled in round robin play, they have turned it around recently.

"You wouldn't believe how everyone drinks the same thing every night," Schuster said. "Beer or Captain and Coke. They drink the same thing they drank before."

Smith says rent for the apartment is $150 a month apiece, with heat included. Which is a good thing when you're living in Duluth in the winter. "We get in arguments over the room temperature," Smith said. "[Isaacson] likes it around 60 degrees but I want it at least 70-75 degrees."

From the sounds of it, if it weren't for Isaacson, the bunk bed room would look like the U.S. hockey team had already trashed it.

"My stuff is folded and neat and his is always spread around," Isaacson said. "And he never does his dishes, though he probably thinks he does because he's a pig. But I'm pretty tolerant. As long as my stuff is in order, that's all I can do."

Otherwise, the curlers say there aren't many disagreements. The three have known each other since they were teens and get along well enough that no one has painted a white border down the middle of a bedroom. "We're not always around each other, so it's not as bad as it may seem," Isaacson said. "I've curled with Jason since I was 14 years old and we played against John throughout junior league."

The arrangement is only temporary though, and making the Olympics more than compensates for whatever privacy they've sacrificed along the way.

"It's an opportunity that very few people will ever get," Isaacson said. "We get to spend time with our friends and go to all these different countries, get to go to the Olympics. It's something that a lot of people wish they could do. The experience is worth it."

Besides, it could be a lot worse. Milton Bradley could be a curler.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com