Three years ago, Alan Penkar had some time on his hands after starting a new job and, reminiscing on earlier days playing a curling video game on the Nintendo 64, enrolled in a learn-to-curl class.
Sarah Genzer was a bit bolder.
A year after Penkar began experimenting with the sport, she signed up for a league game after becoming familiar enough with curling after watching the Olympics. Genzer took a crash course in curling an hour before her first match, and by the end of the night, she started her unofficial career at 1-0.
Fast-forward to today, and they’ve taken home some hardware from the time, effort and fun they’ve spent on the ice.
The native Texans – Genzer from the Houston area and Penkar from Dallas – are two members of the Peachtree Curling Association, a 501c3 centered around promoting the sport of curling. Based in Marietta, the PCA instructs interested persons on how to play the game and provides recreational leagues for area players to compete.
The association started seven years ago, growing to host players nearly every day of the week. On Mondays, a balanced league plays, Tuesdays are bring-your-own team nights. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays have their own leagues, while Sundays are open for pickup play. Fridays are the only nights without a league, as the ice is reserved for lessons and learning.
But this weekend, the ice won’t be full of first-timers. The PCA is hosting the Peach State Spiel on March 10-12 at its small, indoor facility in Marietta, one of two tournaments the association will put on through the year. This year, 16 teams will take the ice, including teams from Huntsville, Orlando, Charlotte and more.
Teams are guaranteed three games, and if a team loses, they move to the B bracket and a loss there moves them to C. It’s all about fun, and that enjoyment for the game is part of the club’s reputation.
“Our club is pretty known, at least on the East Coast, as being a kind-of more fun, relaxed club,” Penkar said. “Mostly because we don’t have that same level of tradition, and the people who have been playing for 50 years aren’t going to necessarily take that as well. We do it because we love curling, so why not have fun?”
PCA also hosts a Night of the Curling Dead tournament each year the weekend before Halloween, and curlers come dressed in their best costumes. No matter the occasion, these curlers have fun.
But before the fun, there’s some work involved.
Pain in the ice
With a nonprofit organization, all of the help comes from volunteers. That means the upkeep of the playing surface falls to the membership.
There’s a dedicated ice team to maintain the ice when league play starts, but the process is a little different down South. With warm temperatures, it’s costly and challenging to maintain a sheet of ice year-round, so the PCA takes a few months off when the temperatures rise.
“In Atlanta in the summer to keep ice is a somewhat inflated check,” Genzer said. “We melt down in the summer, so right after Labor Day is when we start building the ice. It takes us a whole month.”
The process takes three to four weeks to build up the ice, the pair explained. Three times a day, a new layer of water is added on top of existing layers until. It takes an hour and a half to two hours to add each layer, so it takes some time, but is important to creating a perfect playing surface.
“You start with a hose and you put micro layers of water,” Genzer explained. “The issue is if you dump a bunch of water in there, you can – like a pool – make a meniscus and the middle of the ice sheet will be a lot lower than the sides, it won’t be flat. For curling, you need flat ice for it to be predictable for what it is doing with the rocks.”
She also noted the difference between a curling surface and other ice sports.
“On top of that, there is tons of surface prep. When you stand on curling ice you’ll recognize it’s not like skating rink ice, it’s not very slick. We purposely put texture on it – it’s called pebble. We have a water pump with a backpack and different slotted spoons to create different water droplet sizes. So you’ll walk and flick water across the surface and put layers and layers of those on over the season.”
PCA’s facilities were donated, previously a junior hockey rink, but it takes great care of what it has. It shows in the work the organization invests in their league.
“Trying to curl is a labor of love, I can tell you that,” Penkar said.
Breaking the ice
While tossing stones is the draw, the community built by the game is important too. The social aspect of curling is special to the game, according to Penkar and Genzer.
For instance, there’s broomstacking. It happens after a match when a member of the winning team buys a round for the corresponding position player for the losing team, and it’s common practice at bonspiels. An after-match beer is common, even if it’s not a broomstacked one. The BYOB organization can’t hold a liquor license with its nonprofit status, but members can bring some refreshments to the 42-degree arena.
“People bring their own beers, you have a beer after the game, and because it’s quite cold in there, you don’t need a refrigerator,” Penkar said. “We call it a win-win.”
There’s also pins. Each group or association has a pin special to the group, so in bonspiels or matches against other teams, it’s common practice to trade pins to remember matches and opponents. The pair have built a collection themselves.
A special aspect of the game is getting piped on, but that only happens to those who have played well at a bonspiel.
“If you make it to an event final – usually Sunday morning or early afternoon, like an 11:00 or noon game – they will have all of the teams line up and you will have bagpipers that pipe you onto the ice,” Genzer said. “They’ll lead you, and you will walk onto the ice. There’s lots of pageantry and stamping your broom to the beat of the music. Depending if they were in a band or not, some of the curlers are better at staying on beat than the others.”
Ice in her veins
Both Penkar and Genzer kept the beat pretty well in the B team final for last year’s Peach State Spiel, as the pair won. Genzer also found success in a 5 & Under bonspiel – a tournament for curlers who have played for five years or less – two weeks ago. She and her first-year partner made the final game.
“I don’t know what happened, but we made the A final,” Genzer said. “That was exciting for me, I’m only a second-year curler so I still have three more years to get back in it. I want to get to Nationals at some point.”
She just might get the chance. The second-place finish might earn her a spot in nationals, but time will tell. In the meantime, she and Penkar will enjoy the last several weeks of the season as well as this weekend’s tournament, hoping to get piped on this Sunday morning.