Madison couple enjoy unusual sport and share their passion with others
Photos by Joshua Berry
The 2006 Olympic Games had a profound effect on Madison resident Elaine Oakes. She did not win a gold medal, not even a silver or bronze – in fact, she did not even compete. Nevertheless, she fell in love with the sport of curling and has not looked back.
“During the 2006 Olympics, my husband Lynn and I found curling. We were amused, confused and fascinated and could not stop watching,” Oakes said. “I told him I wanted to do that someday.”
Oakes looked for a local curling team, but the closet one she found was in Knoxville. Lynn told her he was not going to travel that far to try it, but if a club ever came to the area, he would. “In the spring of 2018, it did. We signed up for one of the first Learn to Curl sessions and have been hooked ever since,” Oakes said.
The Rocket City Curling Club was founded in 2018, and Oakes was elected to the first board. The club has about 100 members. Fourteen teams are participating in the fall league, training and competing at the Huntsville Iceplex.
The club held its first tournament, called a bonspiel, over Labor Day weekend. The event, Rock-It City Bonspiel, hosted 32 teams from 10 different states. Even folks who were in the path of Hurricane Dorian attended to compete.
“Everyone had a great time, stayed in our hotels, ate at our restaurants and explored various attractions,” Oakes said. “We see this as an opportunity for economic development for our great town.”
Oakes said she remembers the first time she took to the ice to learn the sport. She aimed to be good at it from the start – Olympics-bound, even. In the early days of the club, prospective members would go through two learning sessions, and then league play started. She was placed on a team with an experienced player, Linda Haft, who encouraged the rookie player.
“I was super excited to get started, and I just thought I’d be naturally good at it. Let’s just say I was not,” Oakes said. “Afterward, I was still giddy with excitement and couldn’t wait to return and play a game.”
Oakes participated in a skills clinic with Olympic gold-medalist Tyler George, who came to town to be a part of the bonspiel the club hosted. “He helped me improve some basic skills I had been doing improperly,” Oakes said. “Everyone is so encouraging.”
Oakes plays first or second position on the Game of Stones team. She is joined by her husband, Haft and three other players. A team throws eight stones, so Oakes throws first or second. The team member deemed the “skip” directs the throws. After the throws, Oakes sweeps the stones toward the center. Sweeping makes the ice smoother in the path of the stone, affecting its speed and curl. The team whose stone is closest to the center is the only team that can score.
“At this level, I think most of us are just hoping to get into the house – the term we use for the bull’s-eye at the end of the ice – for a chance to score,” Oakes said. “I try to throw wherever my skip tells me to throw – with ‘try’ being the operative term here.”
The stones thrown in the sport of curling weigh 38-44 pounds. The granite for the stones comes from only two sources: Alisa Craig, an island off the Ayrshire coast of Scotland, and the Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales.
Curling is not seen as an athletic sport by some, but Oakes knows better. She said sweeping is her cardio, and getting into low positions helps with flexibility – yet, curling is suitable for all ages. “Unlike some other ice sports, you can continue to curl into your twilight years,” Oakes said. “If someone can’t get down in a low position to deliver a stone, there is a stick that attaches to the stone handle so that person doesn’t have to bend down at all.”
Besides the health and wellness aspect of the sport, Oakes said curling also boasts a social side. After the teams play, many of the members stay around for “broomstacking,” which is a time to chat. “We have a lot of laughs sharing Brad Forrest stories,” Oakes said. “It’s a club thing.”
Since beginning the sport, Oakes has improved in both her understanding of the rules and strategy and actual throwing and sweeping skills. She said she looks forward to improving and having more fun. “I was a little apprehensive about being on the ice when I first tried it. I was afraid I might fall,” Oakes said. “While falls do occur, the ice is pebbled and really is fairly easy to walk on … So after getting over my fear, the hardest thing for me has been getting consistent with my stone delivery. I’m still working on that.”
Oakes said she understands curling is not a particularly popular sport in the South; however, the Rocket City Curling Club has plans to change that. The group sees curling as something companies should consider for corporate events and team building. Getting it into areas schools is also a possibility. The club has discussed getting schools involved in terms of physical education and team sports, as well as tying it into physics and STEM.
Oakes said she just wants the sport to grow. “I hope we can host several national events here each year and bring even more folks to our great city to infuse tourism dollars into our economy,” she said. “And ultimately, wouldn’t it be fun to have someone from our club win at a future Olympics?”