Staying upright in curling not so easy, even for the best in the sport

Staying upright on curling ice not so easy

ST. CATHARINES, Ont. — From funny to frightening, falling is a fact of life in curling.

Elite curlers are not immune. An informal survey of women at the Canadian championship yields a few stories about feet leaving the ice and elbows, arms and buttocks taking the brunt of a spill.

“I probably have a really good fall at least once a season,” Alberta lead Alison Thiessen said.

A wipeout can happen in a practice, a league game or in front of rolling cameras at national championships recording the pratfall for posterity.

The women move so comfortably on the ice at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in St. Catharines, Ont., it’s easy to forget they have a slider on one shoe that can turn into a banana peel.

Falls aren’t surprising when you consider curlers lunge out of the hack balancing on one foot far ahead of the other.

They lean their body weight into their broom heads to maximize sweeping pressure while stepping over a minefield of guards in front of the rings.

Injury a possibility but uncommon at their level of curling, what concerns the women more is if they go down is touching the rock in motion with their brooms or bodies.

The stone is then “burned” and immediately removed from play. It’s basically giving a free throw and momentum to the opposition.

A spill in practice might produce nothing worse than giggles, but in an important game, it’s mortifying.

“My first Scotties, we were playing against Shannon Kleibrink and it was my first ever game on TSN,” Ontario lead Lisa Weagle recalled.

“First, I burned one of (skip) Rachel’s rocks sweeping and the next end I fell while sweeping. I didn’t burn that rock, but super-embarrassing. We managed to win the game somehow. I’ve never been happier to get off the ice.”

Getting out of the way of a sliding rock is their priority as opposed to protecting themselves when they land on the ice.

“You kind of just move your broom, let the rock go by and tuck and roll,” Ontario second Joanne Courtney said. “Then you try to get back in (to sweeping) but everyone’s laughing too hard.”

Northern Ontario’s front end of Ashley Sippala and Sarah Potts have a pact. If one goes down, the other sweeper has permission to push her teammate out of the way with her broom as hard as it takes.

“One time Ashley fell in front of a rock,” Potts said. “It was funny because it was a scrub game and it didn’t matter. I took my broom and I shoved her out of the way. If I fall in front of the rock, she should shove.”

A wobble sliding out of the hack can turn into a belly flop, but those who keep their heads can still execute their intended shot.

“I think I fell in a league game last season and I made the shot, a double,” Northern Ontario third Kendra Lilly said.

“I slid out of the hack and I don’t know if my foot slipped and I went face down, belly down and just shot the rock down. Everyone stood up and was clapping. I was so embarrassed.”

Brad Gushue’s face plant at The Masters in October, 2015 that resulted in stitches and a swollen eye was a wake-up call that crashes in curling can be more than just embarrassing. 

Curling Canada introduced return-to-play concussion protocol mandatory for all their events a year ago.

The organization also recommends protective headgear, as well as wearing grippers on both feet when not delivering a stone, for curlers under 12 until they’ve had two years of training, casual curlers and curlers 65 and over.

Equipment manufacturers now produce curling tuques and hats with protective padding in them, but they’ve yet to be embraced by elite curlers.

Courtney had a large audience for what she considers her most spectacular fall. She was instructing youngsters at a summer camp in Leduc, Alta., and demonstrating how to sweep at the time.

“I don’t even know what happened, but next thing I know my feet are in the air,” Courtney recalled. “I fell on my butt, hit the side of the rock, the rock shoots to the other end of the sheet and stops dead. I’m laying in the middle of the ice in front of probably 120 campers.

“And that’s how it’s done kids.”

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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