THE ST. PAUL CURLING CLUB STANDS AS A STATELY, white stucco building along the fashionable stretch of Selby Avenue. Most people passing by surely have no idea what it is; the only clue is a small nameplate above the recessed entrance. Inside, the place is as big as a bowling alley, full of burnished wood and Old World charm and dominated by a massive slab of ice behind a glass wall.
The St. Paul Curling Club was founded in 1912, making it one of the oldest such clubs in the country. And with nearly 1,200 members, it is the largest curling organization in North America. Today, however, the place is virtually deserted. Only two lonely figures are out on the eight curling "sheets," or playing fields.
One of them is Allison Pottinger, a member of the U.S. Olympic team that will be traveling to Vancouver in February for the 2010 Games. The 36-year-old curler is a lean and petite 5 '1", full of so much energy that her Olympic team captain, Debbie McCormick, jokes, "We have a rule that she can't eat candy or chocolate before a game. She just bounces off the wall."
Pottinger has staked out a sheet near the far end of the building to practice her arsenal of shots—draws, takeouts, and blocking maneuvers—that have made her one of the best women curlers in America. Over and over, she pushes off near one wall, swinging a 40-pound, polished granite stone (or "rock") in one hand and a curling broom in the other for balance. In one effortless motion, she crouches into a lunging position as low to the ice as possible and glides toward the center of the rink. At a certain point she releases the rock's handle with the exaggerated delicacy of someone building a house of cards. After a few throws, she skates to the other end of the sheet to do it all again.
"When I practice, there's not a ton of people around," Pottinger says. "It's either in the middle of the afternoon or it's late at night at 10:30 after people are coming off from playing."
Technically, in fact, she is on her lunch break, and she typically has about 40 minutes or so, two or three days a week, to practice before she has to get back to her job as a marketing researcher for General Mills. As a working wife and mother of three-year-old and 15-month-old girls, Pottinger must sandwich her Olympic dreams between the everyday realities of job and family.
Curling isn't a particularly taxing sport—curlers would be lucky to break a sweat during most games—but Pottinger's preparation is surprisingly rigorous. Most mornings she gets up early for a 40-minute run. She lifts weights three days a week, including one session with a professional trainer, and, like her teammates, works individually with a sports psychologist. Several times a week she practices at the club by herself or with her husband, Doug, who is also an elite-level curler.
Though her four Olympic teammates are scattered (two players and an alternate in Madison, Wisconsin, and another player in Bemidji), they generally come together a couple of times a month for training camps or international competitions.
Since late August, the women's team has been to Europe twice and Canada four times for training and tournaments (known as bonspiels). They were in Madison last weekend for another bonspiel, and later this month they head to Green Bay for a high-performance camp.
"Then we leave on the fifth of January and go to Switzerland and then to Scotland," Pottinger says. "We'll be gone for two weeks."
A typical day at home involves rising at 5 a.m. for a run, readying for work at 6:10, getting out the door with her toddlers at 7, and working from 7:30 to 4, with a few lunch hours a week for practice. After work she might lift with her trainer from 5 to 6, "and then it's home for dinner."
CURLING IS THE DUCKBILLED PLATYPUS OF SPORTS—a strange creature that looks like it's been cobbled together from an odd mix of shuffleboard, ice skating, and cleaning your house.
The sport is thought to have been invented in medieval Scotland. In the modern game, teams of four take turns throwing the heavy granite stones toward a target of concentric circles (known as the "house") at the far end of a 150-foot-long sheet. The surface of the ice is pebbled, which makes the rock curl slightly as it wends its way down the sheet.
The objective is to get one of your team's rocks closest to the center of the target. You then a point for every rock inside the house that is closer than one of your opponent's rocks.
The oddest-looking components of the game are the two brushers who glide ahead of the rock, sweeping furiously as another teammate barks instructions. The movement melts the ice ahead of the stone, reducing friction and keeping the rock on a straighter path. Curling has been called "chess on ice" because the goal of getting a rock closest to the center involves an elaborate strategy of blocking opponents' shots and knocking their stones out of the house.
Despite its ancient origins, curling has been an Olympic sport only since 1998. It is not exactly spectator-friendly. Curlers will say that the game is more fun to play than to watch, and after a few minutes of observing granite stones floating torpidly across the ice till they gently come to rest, it's hard to disagree. Even in the frozen climes of Minnesota, curling is a bit of a sports stepchild, though it is huge in Canada, where it is considered the "other national pastime" besides hockey.
Pottinger first took up curling as a child in Ontario, Canada. "My mom and dad played in leagues. It just kind of stuck," she says. So when her family moved to Wisconsin, "the first thing my sister and I looked up was where was the nearest curling club."
It was here that Pottinger first met Debbie McCormick, who is now the captain (or "skipper") of the U.S. Olympic team. McCormick went on to play in two Olympics in 1998 and 2002, finishing just out of medal contention. When she decided to put together a team of her own in 2003, Pottinger was her first choice.
That year, their team won gold at the world championships. "We've played together ever since," McCormick says.
Pottinger's role on the team is known as the vice skip, or third. "From a shooting standpoint, my shots vary quite a bit from touch shots to clearing shots," she says. "And I take control of the house while Debbie is shooting." She is also an important conduit of information between the other players and the skip, who spends most of the game at the far end of the ice.
McCormick calls Pottinger a "fiery" player and "definitely the hardest worker I know."
Pottinger is also the most likely to rally the troops. "Lots of times in her position she has to bail us out. If things aren't going well, she's key to turning things around for us," McCormick says.
LATE ON A TUESDAY NIGHT, THE ST. PAUL Curling Club is packed wall-to-wall with scores of members on all eight sheets, sailing rocks across the ice and shouting instructions from skips to players.
On sheet No. 1, Pottinger and her husband, Doug, are on a team in a neck-and-neck battle with their opponents going into the final round.
This is also part of Pottinger's catch-as-catch-can training schedule. Though the competition is hardly world-class, any time on the ice is valuable with the Olympics looming in three months.
The curlers were the first athletes named to the U.S. Olympic team, following the trials in February, and Pottinger and her skip, McCormick, have high hopes for their chances in Vancouver. McCormick says this may be the best and most dedicated of her three Olympic teams, and she has expectations of a gold medal. They have won the last four U.S. national championships together and won a silver medal at world championships in 2006.
Even so, the women's team did not do well at the worlds in South Korea earlier this year, finishing ninth.
"We actually struggled, quite honestly," Pottinger says. "I think part of it was that it was after trials."
In the aftermath of the grueling U.S. competition, the team had less than two weeks before worlds began in Asia. "But it was still a good experience," Pottinger says. "It brought up a lot of stuff that we needed to talk about and sort out over the summer."
The Americans' most formidable competition will most likely be Canada, since that team will have home-field advantage in Vancouver. Sweden and Switzerland are also strong, and China won the world championships in March.
"Every year it seems that teams are getting better and better," McCormick says. "You need to play at your best. I really feel like we're going to be mentally prepared, physically prepared. I can't think of any reason we should not be on the podium."