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Lending a hand to future curlers

William Zwack (left) and Grace Bugher sweep in front of the stone shot down the ice by their teammate. This is the fourth year the Vikingland Curling Club has taught the sport to St. Mary's students. (Emily Myrin / Echo Press)1 / 3
Ashton Sladek prepares to shoot the stone down the ice when St. Mary's fifth and sixth graders curled at the RCC. (Emily Myrin / Echo Press)2 / 3
The fifth and sixth graders from St. Mary's School participated for the fourth year in a row in a curling program voluntarily put on by the Vikingland Curling Club. (Emily Myrin / Echo Press)3 / 3

The west rink of the Runestone Community Center teemed with kids on a chilly December morning, but they weren't decked out with hockey pads and no one was wearing skates.

The St. Mary's elementary school fifth and sixth grade students took turns throwing stones down the ice and sweeping furiously to guide the stones into the house. The students were participating in their first curling competition under the guidance of the Vikingland Curling Club.

"For some, this may be the only time they will ever be on the ice to curl," St. Mary's principal Troy Sladek said. "However, for others it may spark their interest and curling could become a lifetime sport."

This is the fourth year that Vikingland Curling has taught fifth and sixth graders at St. Mary's the sport of curling.

"The Vikingland Curling Club's mission is to promote and grow the sport of curling," club member Jason Rauk said. "One way we reach out is with the youth in the community. We're grateful to expose those 44-some kids every year to the sport of curling."

First, club members go to the school and teach the kids the basic rules of the game and give instruction on the four step delivery process for shooting the stone down the ice. Then students get one hour of on-ice practice before the game.

"I'm surprised to see as many volunteers out here. It's really neat to see them get involved like this," Jen Bugher, mother of St. Mary's student, Grace, said. "I just think it's nice that all these people take time out of their day to get the kids interested in doing these different activities."

Vikingland Curling Club president Ron Branch hopes to increase community interest in the family-friendly winter sport through the St. Mary's program.

"(Curling) makes the winter go fast," Branch said. "It's great for families. Mom, dad, the kids, everyone can do it, ages 9-90."

Branch says it's great low-impact exercise. Curlers can cover two miles when they're sweeping on the ice during a game. Because the curling club doesn't have a dedicated curling ice and the hockey ice is mostly occupied in the evenings, they've had to take advantage of any daytime ice they can find, club members said.

It takes the curling club an hour and a half to convert hockey ice into curling ice.

"The quality is not quite there," Rauk said. "A lot of kids have difficulty throwing the whole length of the ice because the ice is a little bit colder for hockey and the stone doesn't want to go down the ice as far."

The club wants to provide more curling services to a wider range of people, but says it is struggling to find a way to do that without access to curling ice.

"Ideally, what we would like in this community is a dedicated facility where there's dedicated ice," Rauk said. "Then we could offer after school programs, all day programs. We could offer to seniors, people with disabilities. Really the sport of curling is available to all physical abilities and all ages. It's just that you need to get out and give it a go."

And the kids like it, said student Grace Bugher, though she does admit it's a bit cold. Bugher does ice skating as well but she enjoyed her curling experience.

"I am always encouraging my staff to find learning opportunities outside the classroom," Sladek said. "By collaborating with the curling club, the fifth and sixth graders are able to learn about and experience playing a unique sport that requires strategy, skill and teamwork."