In a previous life, many, many years ago, I was a curler. I'm still a curler, actually, but only a once-a-week rock-tosser who enjoys the post-game libation as much as the game itself. That probably puts me the same class as about 98 per cent of all curlers in Canada.
But there was a time when I did worry about winning and when I spent weekends battling it out with the top teams in the land, usually getting my head handed to me but once in a while actually cashing a cheque from a bonspiel.
This week, I got a clear understanding of why I will never do that again when I stepped on to the ice with Kevin Martin, skip of Canada's team for the upcoming Olympic Games and arguably the best player in the game. Martin agreed to give me a lesson, obviously certain that my bad habits weren't contagious this close to the biggest event of his career. He also gave me some insight into just how hard he works and how very, very good he is at the game.
Since winning the Canadian Curling Trials at the start of December, Martin has laid low, taking three full weeks off the ice. He started practising again just after the new year and is playing this weekend in Guelph, Ont., at the Swiss Chalet National, one of curling's Grand Slam events.
"I took the time off right to New Year's after the trials," Martin said. "You don't really realize how tired you are until you take a break. You're kind of running on fumes and don't really know it and once I got off the ice for a few days I could tell how tired I was."
That doesn't mean he wasn't preparing, however. Martin and his team of John Morris, Ben Hebert and Marc Kennedy had lots of logistical details to which to attend. Arranging for families to get to the Games with accommodation and tickets, attending to the strict drug testing regulations which requires submitting a three-month, daily schedule in case a surprise drug test is to be administered, and also meeting with the crush of media requests filled out most days. None of this is new for Martin, a two-time Olympian, but it had slipped his mind.
"It's a lot of years ago since I was in the Olympics," he said, noting his last trip was in 2002 at Salt Lake City. "But I forgot about all the details that there is to work out. You think there's a lot of time between Dec. 13 and Feb. 16, but with Christmas falling in there, there's not a lot of work days to get things accomplished."
That, of course, made me feel even more sheepish about begging for a lesson. But Martin complied. He started by adjusting my foot position in the hack, the curling equivalent of changing someone's golf grip.
Then he told me to square up my shoulders, trying to aim the centre of my body at the broom. Next he instructed me on my takeaway, to draw my hips and body way back behind the hack, so that 100 per cent of my weight was on my sliding foot. He demonstrated by lifting his foot right out of the hack. The rest, he said, was simple: just push from the hack and your body should slide straight out at the broom.
"Smooth!" said a somewhat surprised Martin at my delivery. "Pretty good."
After a couple of attempts, feeling confident, I threw down the glove, challenging Martin to a one-rock, draw-to-the-button. The loser would buy the winner a beer.
Of course I had an advantage. I'd warmed up and thrown a few stones before he arrived. He was flying blind in terms of the speed of the ice. My rock came to rest just into the eight-foot circle but I certainly wasn't feeling smug knowing I was playing against the best.
And at ice level, it's easy to see why Martin is so good. His slide is smooth as molasses, his delivery without any of the wobbles in mine. It's seamless and relaxed; the rock floats out of his hand. Mine is more a fight to stay upright, like a table with one short leg.
But the reigning Canadian champion couldn't handle the pressure of this match - his shot came up a foot short of the rings and I was crowned the winner. (The video evidence of the match can be seen at ctvolympics.ca.) Although he congratulated me with a handshake, there was no word yet on when I'm going to collect my beer. I'm guessing after the Olympics.