In Paoli, curling is making tracks The Philadelphia Curling Club, with 140 members, is enjoying its sport's Olympic exposure.

Posted: February 21, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY — The leader of the United States Curling Association ought to live in a tiny north-woods town, where people slide rocks on ice because, hey, what else are you going to do on a Saturday night?

It's surprising, then, to read on the red-white-blue letterhead of the national curling organization that its president, Peggy Hatch, resides not in Bemidji, Minn., but in Philadelphia. Center City no less, where, typically, the only sporting activities involving rocks and household implements are parking-spot disputes.

And Paoli, in the heart of Main Line golf-and-tennis country, seems an unlikely curling hotbed. But there, on Plank Avenue, a block from the train station, stands the two-sheet home of the 140-member Philadelphia Curling Club.

NBC and its cable affiliates have opted to give this esoteric Olympic sport some serious national TV time in these 2002 Winter Games. The United States plays Canada today (MSNBC, 1 p.m.) for the bronze medal in women's curling.

As a result of the TV coverage, underground curling outposts as well as some of the die-hard practitioners and eccentric fans are surfacing in places such as Philadelphia, where the game once had zero visibility.

"A 14-year-old member of the U.S. junior skeleton team just told me how wonderful he thought curling was," said Hatch, who is at the Olympics monitoring the curling events in distant Ogden, Utah. "Then a man from Xerox came up to me the other day, and said, 'You know, curling is really the hot sport here.' "

Hatch, 56, an employee of North American Publishing Co. in Center City, is convinced curling will experience an Olympic-driven renaissance.

Already on the East Coast, she noted, a facility - the first in many years in this part of the country - recently opened in Laurel, Md., just off the Washington Beltway.

Overall, there are 38 curling clubs in the East - some sharing their facilities with hockey teams - that figure to benefit. Hershey has one. So does Lancaster.

"We're very excited," Hatch said. "CBS gave us bupkes during [the '98 Winter Games in] Nagano. But NBC has been wonderful. We think people are really going to be interested in what they've been seeing."

Hatch is in mid-term of her one-year tenure as president of the 15,000-member organization based in Stevens Point, Wis. She got hooked while living in Connecticut. Eventually, she became so adept that she earned a position as an alternate on a U.S. women's world championship team.

"If you don't know anything about it, curling is pretty hard to figure out. But it's really a deceptively simple sport," Hatch said. "There's a great deal of strategy involved at a certain level, but you can pick up the basics of the game and be playing in 10 minutes.

"People from 8 to 80 can curl. Husbands and wives. Parents and children."

When she and her husband, Denny - "He's a 'social' curler," Hatch said - moved to Philadelphia more than a decade ago, work consumed most of her time. Still, she longed for the sport and the mix of camaraderie and competition it provided until she discovered the Paoli club.

Established in 1957, the Philadelphia Curling Club shared a hockey rink in Villanova until it bought the Plank Avenue property from Philadelphia Suburban Water Co. in 1964.

Not surprisingly, the club has a strong Canadian presence.

"We have many Canadians," said Rosemary Morgan, a past president, "some with dual citizenship and some with green cards."

Still, Philadelphia is not likely to threaten Canada any time soon as the mecca of the 400-year-old Scottish-born game. There are 1.2 million curlers in Canada, Hatch said, and Canadian curling telecasts regularly attract four million viewers.

In the eyes of most Americans, it's the sweeping that earns the sport its eccentric reputation. Mop-like devices have long since replaced the old corn-straw brooms.

"I know the sweeping looks very bizarre," Hatch said. "But remember, when it started in Scotland, they were playing out of doors, so the brooms were sweeping away twigs and debris, keeping the path the stone would travel clean."

The Paoli club's annual invitational tournament - the Harvest Bonspiel - takes place each November. And, to capitalize on the sport's newfound Olympic glory, Paoli soon will hold an open house to acquaint the curious with its game and to raise money for the Special Olympics.

Just as Philadelphia is an unlikely location for Hatch, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., could be considered an odd place for a self-described curling fanatic. But business professor Keith Willoughby has produced a scholarly work on his analysis of 902 matches of the Canadian men's national curling team.

He and a Canadian doctoral candidate painstakingly dissected 902 Canadian men's games between 1985 and 1997. They concluded that, as baseball fans already know, it is better to be the last team to slide the 42-pound hunk of granite down the 146 feet of ice.

"It's a game that involves the thought process," Hatch said. "And it's getting more high-tech all the time. The training and the equipment are so much better now than when I began."

A pair of curling stones cost about $800, she said, and shoes - one grips the ice while the other is adapted for sliding - start at about $100. The mop-like sweepers are even cheaper.

"If people in Philadelphia want to get a picture of the sport in their heads, they might want to think of golf, strange as that sounds," Hatch said. "There are many similarities.

"Both were invented by Scots. Golfers and curlers both need to determine how much momentum they want to put on a shot and where they want it to land. Golfers have to read the green, and curlers must assess the condition of the ice."

A club membership, however, is considerably cheaper for curlers. At Paoli, a year's dues are $250.

"Curling might be more dangerous, though," Hatch said jokingly. "I just broke my ankle when I got my feet tangled and slipped on the ice."

Frank Fitzpatrick's e-mail address is ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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