Brushing Off The Mockery, Curlers Push For Olympic Glory

It's difficult to find a sport more maligned than curling, but curlers say that's changing. NPR's Jacki Lyden talks with Paul Savage, a formerly overweight Canadian curling champion who took home an Olympic medal at age 50. These days, the sport is more about fitness than it is about the beer.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Where I come from, in Wisconsin, curling is a beloved and traditional sport; the game where players slide stones across a sheet of ice. Sometimes, though, it gets a bit maligned. In fact, one curling tradition has the winning team buying the losing team drinks. But it is now an Olympic sport.

Paul Savage took home a silver medal from the 1998 Winter Olympics at the age of 50, and he joins us from his home outside Toronto. Hello there, Paul.

PAUL SAVAGE: Hi, Jacki. How are you today?

LYDEN: I want you to defend curling. Tell us about the beauty of some of those curling moves. Tell me about the brush.

SAVAGE: So if you watch top curlers use the brush, they're using virtually every muscle in their body down the backs, to gain maximum brush head speed and power on the ice. And it can make a huge difference to the final resting place of the rock. I mean, when these people sweep a brush end to end, they get a heart rate of up to 190, 195. It's a real amazing 25-, 26-second workout.

In fact, the Canadian athlete of the half-century in Canada, his name was Jim Irons. He took up curling in 1957 in Toronto, and he referred to sweeping a brush out on the curling rock end to end as the toughest blast in sports.

LYDEN: You won a silver medal for Canada at the 1998 Winter Games. Tell me about that. You were somewhat older than a lot of Olympic athletes. How'd you train?

SAVAGE: Well, I played on the world curling tour for a number of years, starting in the early '70s up until about 1996. I played against Germany, which qualified me for a medal; and the boys played awesome. Had one little hiccough right at the end, and so we ended up with the silver medal.

LYDEN: Wow. Now, I understand that you had to shed a bit of weight leading up to those Olympics in 1998. They told you to lose 20 pounds.

SAVAGE: Well, that actually happened in the '88 Olympics, which took place in Calgary, Alberta. My skip and I - there were two of us on the team - were a little overweight, which wasn't abnormal in curling circles, back in those days. Anyway, we went to the camp; and we couldn't do any real sit-ups, and we couldn't do too many pushups, and we were both 20 pounds overweight. We were the best curling team in the world, at the time.

And we got a notice on the day that the press conference took place to announce which teams would go to the trials. And they said, the good news is that you're invited to the trials; the bad news is, you and Eddie have to lose 20 pounds each, and you have to improve your level of fitness.

LYDEN: What was your regimen?

SAVAGE: My skip, Eddie Varnek, he just stopped eating for about six weeks. He went on a crash diet, and I went to the gym every day. I worked out really, really hard. I loved food too much to stop eating. Anyway, we both lost close to 20 pounds, and the Canadian Curling Association agreed to let us go to the trials.

LYDEN: I understand that Eddie kind of was weak from not eating.

SAVAGE: Yeah, it really affected his ability to curl. And the Olympic trials were in Calgary, which was also hosting the Winter Olympics that year. So when we got to Calgary, Eddie was - he wasn't himself, and he played pretty poorly the first two games. So we lost the semifinal, and so we didn't get to play in the Olympics that year.

LYDEN: How would you train now? How does one train to become a champion curler?

SAVAGE: Well, it's quite a bit different these days. With the exception of the United States and Canada, most of the European countries and the Asian countries - China, Korea, Japan - all have full-time curling programs. And so they train, for example, the Chinese teams - the men's and women's teams - spend most of the winter in Canada. They pay big money for a training facility, and they curl seven days a week. They're on the ice six, seven, eight hours a day. It's a whole different game than it was when we played.

LYDEN: That's curling champ Paul Savage. He brought home a silver medal for Canada in 1998 and wrote a book about it, called "Canadian Curling: Hack to House." Paul Savage, thank you very much.

SAVAGE: You're welcome, Jacki.

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