Minnesota curlers going for the gold

It's 11 a.m., and a compact car and a beer truck are the only vehicles outside the Bemidji Curling Club. That'll change before long, as members of Thursday's businessmen's curling league begin arriving. The activity is winter's answer to summer's...

It's 11 a.m., and a compact car and a beer truck are the only vehicles outside the Bemidji Curling Club.

That'll change before long, as members of Thursday's businessmen's curling league begin arriving.

The activity is winter's answer to summer's golf leagues, only this one stretches from 1 p.m. to midnight.

Inside, the club's viewing area overlooks six narrow sheets of ice. About 30 high school students -- all part of an elective curling class -- are learning how to slide one knee on the ice while maintaining their balance. Their goal: delivering a 42-pound stone down a 146-foot long sheet of ice.

"I played hockey all my life; I kind of wish I would have had more time to do this," says the beer man, sitting in one of 50 chairs lined up overlooking the ice.


In Bemidji, a city of 12,000 known for its statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, many residents curl -- including four men and two women who are in Turin, Italy, to compete in the Winter Olympics, which opened last Thursday.

Two banners -- dwarfed by the nearly 100 other ones boasting the success of the Bemidji Curling Club -- proclaim Bemidji's connection to the Olympics.

One banner lists the 2006 U.S. Olympic women's curling team that includes sisters Cassie and Jamie Johnson, who grew up in Bemidji. The other banner lists the U.S. men's curling team that includes head coach Bob Fenson, his son Pete and alternate Scott Baird -- all from Bemidji -- plus Joe Polo who grew up in nearby Cass Lake.

"Having two teams in the Olympics the same year from the same club ... it's unheard of," said 63-year-old Rich Reierson, who's been curling in Bemidji since 1972. "I don't know how you can equate it."

The sport began in 16th-century Scotland, and about 1.5 million people worldwide curl today. Of that, 15,000 come from 26 of the United States.

Wisconsin has the most curlers, with 4,000 -- one is the head coach of the U.S. women's team and another is a member of that team. Minnesota is a close second with 3,000 curlers -- four who are on the U.S. women's team and six who make up the men's team.

The Bemidji Curling Club, open from October until April, is immersed in its own 71-year history -- capturing more than 50 state and national titles. Two Bemidji women played for the 2002 U.S. women's team that placed fourth at the Salt Lake City Olympics. With more than 300 members, Bemidji's club is preparing to host the U.S. World Team Trials in March.

Has Bemidji become the curling capital of the United States?


"Well, we would definitely say that," said Mark Varriano, a club member for the last 25 years. "But the people in Wisconsin probably wouldn't say that."

Age not an issue

As the high school curling class ends, a male student bumps into one of the retired men who are about to take over the ice for league play.

"I didn't have a very good day," the student says.

"It's like golf," the veteran curler says. "Some days you have your good days and some days you have your bad days."

Like golf, curling is a lifetime sport. The Johnson sisters started curling when they were 5. Wally Matson, age 92, curls in league play.

Golfers score on the greens. Curlers score in the house, the round scoring area that measures 12 feet in diameter.

But unlike golf, curling is a team game in which four teammates work together to send the stones gliding across the ice toward a target.


A national-class curler like Pete Fenson -- the 37-year-old skip of a U.S. team that has high hopes for a gold medal -- realizes that once the sport's physical aspects are mastered, the mental aspect separates the good player from the champion.

"You spend a lifetime learning ... we're still learning," Pete Fenson said. "There are just tons of ins and outs to the game. That's what makes it a lifetime game."

The Johnson sisters were skilled curlers by the time they signed up for Varriano's class. Using the class to practice, the sisters also taught others the basics -- like sliding, delivering the stone, sweeping.

That's the easy part, according to Varriano -- a Dilworth native who as a Bemidji High School P.E. instructor started the curling class in 1990.

"The hardest thing is understanding how the game functions," Varriano said. "It becomes more clear yet more complicated the more you play. There's more strategy. Most of the games are played two or three shots ahead ... like billiards."

It runs in the family

It's 2:30 p.m., a time when most of the league players are retirees like Reierson -- a former banker who owns Northland Ice Co.

"This is the backbone of the curling club," Reierson says of the businessmen's league that has 48 players making up 12 teams.


Dallas Way, a retired junior high math teacher, crouches down to deliver a stone. Wearing a Teflon-coated slipper on his left shoe, the right-handed Way slides on his left foot and delivers the stone down the sheet of ice.

Doug Hood, a retired high school Spanish teacher who grew up in Scotland, sweeps rapidly in front of the stone Way delivered. The stone bumps an opponent's stone out of the house.

"Nice shot," Hood yells.

This amount of activity, which occurs six days a week, has amazed the outsiders on the U.S. women's team, all of whom have been living and practicing in Bemidji for the last four months.

Two miles to the south on the quiet corner of 15th Street and Irvine Avenue, Olympian Pete Fenson is in the kitchen of Dave's Pizza storing containers of mushrooms, green peppers, cheese and pepperoni into a refrigerator.

Fenson, a 37-year-old father of two boys, bought Dave's Pizza nine years ago. It has been a Bemidji institution since 1958.

"I grew up eating this pizza," Fenson says.

He also grew up curling. His dad, Bob, was a member of the 1979 U.S. national championship team and won a national seniors title in 2003.


Like his dad, Pete started curling at age 13 but didn't compete in his first bonspiel (tournament) until age 16. "That's old according to today's standards," Pete says.

Practice paid off. That's why when Pete was done preparing for the daily 5 p.m. opening at Dave's Pizza, he drove over to the curling club for an hour's worth of practice.

While Pete started delivering stones on an open sheet, banker Jim Sutton -- the man who advised Pete that he should purchase Dave's Pizza -- was starting league play delivering his stone on the far sheet more than 60 feet away.

"Hurry, hurry, hurry," Sutton yells as two of his teammates rapidly sweep the ice to keep the stone on line and to give it more distance.

The barrage of instructions on five sheets of ice -- sometimes causing players to respond to directions from a nearby game -- doesn't seem to faze Pete.

He focuses his eyes on the target his dad made with his broom.

"How far off was I ... 3 inches?" Pete inquires after his delivery.

Bob holds up his fingers, signifying about 1 inch. Bob, the curling club manager, has been analyzing shots since he started curling in 1960.


"You try to outthink your opponent, but you have to make the shots," Bob says.

Ready for Turin

As the sun sets outside, the eight tables in the upper viewing level are filled with curlers done with league play and people showing up for the scheduled sendoff party for the Olympic teams.

The six television sets hanging above the picture windows are on -- displaying the positions of the stones of the league games being played below. Charlie's Bar, big enough to pass for someone's basement saloon, is getting business.

Mae Polo, mother of Olympian Joe Polo, talks about her travel plans to Italy. She and her husband John are two of 24 going to Italy to support the men's team. Nearly 30 from Bemidji will be in Italy to cheer on the women's team.

At 6 p.m., two men wearing kilts march up the stairs playing bagpipes. It's a processional for the men's and women's teams -- who end up standing in front of the table of hors d'oeuvres.

"Where's Scott?" Mae Polo asks, noticing the absence of alternate Scott Baird.

Baird, who captained a 1979 national championship team with Bob Fenson and the 1993 and 1994 national title teams with Pete Fenson, is still on the ice playing with his businessmen's league teammates.

"Can you believe you're going to the Olympics?" asks teammate Mike Fogelson, a computer programmer.

"It's kind of catching up to us," Baird says. "The team is just ready to go and play. The Olympics will be a whole new adventure for us."

Between shots, Baird laughs with teammate Dave Nielsen, who works in sales and service for a Bemidji Melroe-Bobcat store. The smile quickly disappears when it's his turn to deliver -- focusing as if he were on the ice in Turin.

Meanwhile, upstairs, blonde-haired sisters Cassie and Jamie Johnson -- fourth-generation curlers -- march in behind the bagpipes. Their mother, Liz, was a member of Bemidji's first women's state championship in 1989. Their dad, Tim, was a member of the men's national championship teams in 1993 and 1994.

Together, they were members of a team that won a national mixed championship in 1980 when Liz was five months pregnant with Jamie.

Now 25 years old, Jamie and her 24-year-old sister have been mentioned in magazines like Sports Illustrated and endured 30 satellite television interviews in one morning at a recent curling demonstration in New York's Central Park.

NBC-TV, televising the Winter Games, had its cameras the day before in the Bemidji Curling Club, the Johnson home and on a nearby lake for some ice fishing.

Like the men's team, the women have been busy since last August traveling to competitions in Japan, Norway, Italy and Canada.

Expenses for such trips, including the one to Italy, are funded by the United States Curling Association and the United States Olympic Committee and team sponsors like Nike, Balance curling supplies, Performance brooms and Home Depot.

"Let's just say it's been busier than normal," Cassie Johnson said.

Even at 2 a.m. Monday, the Bemidji Curling Club will be busier than normal. That's when the large-screen television sitting next to Charlie's Bar will be tuned to the USA network for the men's opener and the 7 a.m. women's opener against Norway.

"There will be a lot of early morning risers," Reierson says.

(Kevin Schnepf writes for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper)

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