SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Curled lately? You know, the calmly addicting Olympic sport that's sweeping the nation, despite lack of any Sports Illustrated superstars. Just ahead of the Sochi Winter Games, Lake Tahoe has gotten in on the craze with its newest sport league: Lake Tahoe Epic Curling. The club promotes the ancient Scottish game; one that's both challenging and fun, in a "not-gonna-die-for-your-sport' sort of way. So far, simple word-of-mouth has drawn close to 30 curlers for weekly league play, held each Sunday at 5 p.m.The club came about after Ray Sidney of Big George Ventures made a donation to the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena. "They called me and asked if they could use the funds to buy some curling equipment," Sidney said. "So they bought the first set of stones, then had (professional curler) Eric Hazard give a set of clinics. Since then, I purchased additional equipment and we started renting ice time from the rink.""How this all happened," explained club President Cherise Smith, "one day, Ray and I were at the rink and Eric was there giving a clinic. He's a big-time curler, and his fianc, Edi Loudon, is Scottish and was an Olympic curler for Great Britain. The next day there was a Bonspiel in the Bay Area, which is the name for a big curling tournament."We only had about eight hours before we went, we didn't have any equipment or anything. But we hopped in the car and went to this event the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club was hosting and that's when we got hooked."Curling fills a void for cerebral athletes. Think chess meets shuffleboard meets a brisk snowshoe around the neighborhood. In game play, teams of four slide 42-pound handled stones across the ice, aiming for the "house" at the far end of the court. To promote momentum and direction change, two players follow the stone with brooms. Sweeping is called for by the "skip" or team captain. With eight stones per team, prime placement guarding and blocking the house comes into play."People don't realize how much strategy is involved. There are different positions on each team, and even though it's a very courteous sport, it's very competitive, right down to the last stone," Sidney said. Not long after forming Lake Tahoe Epic Curling, Ray's brother, Larry, moved here from Connecticut and got involved. Last October, the Sidney brothers and Smith journeyed to the sport's heartland, attending a five-day Canadian Curling Camp in Elliott Lake, Ontario."It was a game changer," said Larry Sidney, L-TEC's vice president. "We had been doing all this on our own, learning as we went. We showed up without much knowledge, and the camp taught us things that would take years to acquire. There's so much technique and strategy to learn." A separate entity from the ice rink and one of only three curling clubs in Northern California and Nevada, L-TEC is a Nevada-based, nonprofit club that pays for ice time. So keen are the players that they just installed super-sized house rings that were inlaid in the ice, offering an air of permanence for future curling. League play is every-other Sunday, trading off with practice and learn-to-play sessions, plus there is an open practice session each Tuesday at 8 a.m. Members of the co-ed club play for $6 a session, while the cost is $12 for non-members. "But the first session for anyone is free, since we're trying to promote the sport," Ray Sidney said. "Some people in our first league had played maybe once before, so it's not an intimidating, super-high level of play."To get in on the craze or to simply drop by to watch a session, keep in mind curling enjoys a wintery-cold environment. Observers should remember long johns, cap, gloves and a parka. Players will also need athletic shoes. All the actual gear - stones, brooms and grips to wear over shoes - are provided."As the club evolves, I'm hoping for some local industry nights, like Heavenly vs. Kirkwood, which could then lead to league nights with teams from places like Lakeside, Harrah's, Barton," Ray Sidney said. "Any company can rent the ice from us and schedule a learn-to-curl night. It's a great option for any business to offer their employees."Brother Larry Sidney added: "We're a growing audience and one of the larger groups who use the rink. In less than a year, we'll have Sochi and we've never had this sport available here during an Olympic year. It's just going to be on fire." Club information is available at www.tahoecurling.com.
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