Blues’ Members Take to the Ice at U.S. Curling National Championships in Kalamazoo

If the sport of curling has ever intrigued or confused you – what are they doing with those brooms, anyway? – you can have a front row seat to some elite-level curling action right here in Michigan starting this Saturday.

The 10 best men’s and women’s curling teams from across the country are headed to Kalamazoo for the U.S. Curling National Championships, which will take place Feb. 14-21 at Wings Stadium.

We took the opportunity to interview three of our BCBSM and BCN members who will be competing in the tournament to share their thoughts about the sport they love.

Mark Lazar

Mark Lazar

Mark Lazar is a Toledo resident who works in Michigan and practices at the Detroit Curling Club in Ferndale. He plays for Team Dean Gemmell. Stephanie Senneker and Emilia Juocys are teammates on team Debbie McCormick. (Competition teams are named after the player taking on the “skip” position during play.) Senneker lives in Perry, Michigan. She’s a member of the Kalamazoo Curling Club, but mostly practices in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. Juocys lives in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and also practices in Sarnia.

In curling, players slide granite stones down a sheet of ice toward a target, also known as the “house.” The team closer to the house at the conclusion of an “end” – similar to a baseball inning or hockey period – scores a point. The brooms come in through sweeping of the ice, which is done to influence the path the stone travels or make it go farther.

It sounds simple enough, but Lazar said learning to put the stone where you want it to go takes work and lots of practice.

“It’s like golf. Golf is an easy concept, but you can spend a lifetime being frustrated by it,” he said.

Left to right: Stephanie Senneker, Emilia Juocys, Courtney George, and Debbie McCormick.

Left to right: Stephanie Senneker, Emilia Juocys, Courtney George, and Debbie McCormick.

Getting Started

Lazar, Senneker, and Juocys all got their start playing in different ways.

“Most people are born into curling, especially people who curl competitively,” Lazar said. “Me, I needed a gym credit in college.”

At Bowling Green State University, Lazar convinced some dorm buddies to sign up with him for the curling class that would help round out his schedule. They enrolled, ended up loving it, and eventually joined a league, where they got their “butts kicked by a bunch of 70-year-old men,” Lazar joked.

He started practicing every chance he could and ended up making it to the Junior Nationals. Lazar made it all the way to the Olympic trials, but missed out on going to Vancouver in 2010. This weekend’s competition will mark the 11th time he’s competed at the national level, twice at the junior championships and nine times at the men’s championships.

Senneker became interested in the sport after watching the Winter Olympics. When the U.S. Nationals were held in Kalamazoo in 2010, she decided to check it out. Senneker signed up for a curling lesson offered as part of the championships. Lessons are also available to the public this year.

“I gave it a go and fell in love with it right away,” she said.

Falling in love didn’t equate to greatness, at least not right away.

“I wasn’t good at it at first. I was pretty much a permanent bruise that first year from falling on the ice,” Senneker said with a laugh.

For Juocys, growing up in the Detroit area gave her a glimpse at Canadian broadcasts of curling. She’s competitive by nature and had always played one sport or another throughout her youth. After college, she decided to give curling a try and started out at the Detroit Curling Club.

Although she thrives on the competition, Juocys said the social and recreational aspects of the sport are just as important to her, as well as the sport’s accessibility.

“It’s great for all ages,” Juocys said. “You can be 85 and still have fun.”

A Friendly, Social Sport

If you’re hoping to see a brawl break out during a game of curling, you’re going to need to stick to hockey. That’s not how the game is played and Lazar, Senneker, and Juocys said they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You play the other team and you try to beat them, but you actually, you really kind of develop friendships,” Lazar said.

“In curling, you go on the ice and you start off by shaking everyone’s hands,” Juocys said. “Afterward, you shake hands, go back inside into the warm room and share a beverage together. You sit at the same table and talk about the game.”

Unofficial etiquette for the game actually stipulates that the winning team buy the losing team a beverage after the match, and that the losing team then reciprocate. Eight people who may not have known each other before can become friends over a match.

“It’s classy. It’s nice,” Juocys explained.

Lazar said depending on the club, you might have a company CEO sitting down afterward with a farmhand. All walks of life are drawn to the sport and Juocys said that’s part of the fun. She particularly enjoys listening to older players talk about the “good old days” and the tales of victory and defeat.

“There’s always interesting conversations,” she said.

Senneker said that’s because a lot of fun and unique people tend to play. She said you’d be hard pressed to find people you don’t like in the curling community.

“You meet a lot of great people,” she said.

They Work Out

While it’s fun and social, it’s also hard work. It might not look that strenuous if you’re not playing, but curlers walk an average of two miles per game, more when they’re on sweeping duty.

“It’s like interval training when you’re sweeping,” Senneker said. “It’s quite a workout. You can definitely tire yourself out playing curling.”

Lazar said elite tournament play requires strong legs, a strong core for balance, and endurance for the duration of each game.

“To compete at the elite level, you have to train,” Lazar said. “Weight training is an essential part of the game.”

The game also requires a lot of mental focus and strategy, something Senneker said drew her in.

“It’s really challenging from a physical perspective, but there’s also the mental strategy and toughness you need from that angle,” she said.

Will They Win?

Lazar said he hopes his team will be in the mix at the end of the week, but knows they face some stiff competition. He thinks Senneker, Juocys and their teammates have a great shot.

“We’ve got pretty high expectations,” Senneker said. “We’re a competitive team in this field based on our performances over the season.”

“Only time will tell, but we’re in a good position,” she said.

The women’s team boasts two former Olympians: Debbie McCormick and Courtney George, which makes Juocys confident in their chances.

“I believe our team can make it into the finals,” she said. “We have a great squad with a really strong team dynamic on and off the ice.”

We’re wishing Team Dean Gemmell and Team Debbie McCormick the best of luck this weekend and through next week. In the spirit of curling, we hope every team coming to Kalamazoo performs their best and gives spectators some amazing action to watch. Find out more about the Curling National Championships here or sign up for a lesson and try it for yourself!

 

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