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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When Jimmy Fallon's version of "The Tonight Show" premiered last night on NBC, his guest, actor Will Smith, joked about the Olympics.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON")

WILL SMITH: I think I could win a gold medal in the thing with the broom, the thing...

JIMMY FALLON: Curling.

SMITH: Curling, yeah. Right.

FALLON: Yes, yes, yes.

CORNISH: Curling is a perennial punch line for not appearing to be a particularly athletic sport. In reality, the world's elite curlers are extremely fit. NPR's Tamara Keith caught up with some of the buffest curlers on the ice.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: The Canadian men's curling team is pumped. Their biceps are busting out of their shirt sleeves. Brad Jacobs is the team's skip.

BRAD JACOBS: Ever since we were teenagers, we've always been in the gym, all of us. And we all - even if we curled or not, we would still be in the gym on a regular basis.

KEITH: In addition to all the curling they do, these guys are in the gym four to six days a week, pumping iron and doing cardio. Each session lasts about 90 minutes. They are so into it, they even posted a video of themselves lifting weights on their YouTube channel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One, two, three, go.

KEITH: To the casual observer, this may seem ridiculous. They are curlers, not hockey players. But Jacobs says it gives them an edge on the ice - especially at the Olympics, where they've already played nine matches.

JACOBS: The better physically conditioned you are, the easier these weeks are on your body and on you mentally.

KEITH: A quick primer on curling: It's like lawn bowling on ice. Players hurl a large stone down towards a bull's-eye-looking thing at the opposite end of the sheet, called the house. The goal is to get as many stones as close to the center as possible. And one way to get the stone where you want it to go is to sweep the ice in front of it. Sweeping melts the ice ever so slightly, giving the stone more momentum.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBC BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No. No.

KEITH: This comes from the CBC's broadcast of the Canadian Olympic qualifiers. E.J. Harnden is the Canadian team's second, and he says the time in the gym especially helps with the sweeping.

E.J. HARNDEN: And so in order to keep a rock a little bit straighter or to drag a rock a little bit further, you need to have both pressure and friction. And so we train to make sure we have the cardio and the strength to carry the rock or keep the rock online as much as we can.

KEITH: Curling in Canada is somewhat like softball in America. For most people, it's an excuse to drink beer and hang out with friends. Recreational curlers will tell you the post-match drink is an integral part of curling. But for elite athletes...

HARNDEN: Yeah. Maybe it's a protein shake instead of the beer.

KEITH: Again, E.J. Harnden, who in his official bio lists one of his hobbies as weightlifting. Beer drinking, not so much.

HARNDEN: You don't see it as much as you used to. And we like to think of ourselves as athletes now, not just curlers.

KEITH: Curlers are taking their fitness so seriously now, there's a men of curling calendar - all shirtless, of course. John Morris is Mr. December, and the author of a book called "Fit to Curl."

JOHN MORRIS: If you don't work out and if you don't train specifically in the gym for curling, then you're not going to be at the top level of the sport.

KEITH: Morris won gold for Canada in curling in the 2010 Olympics, and he says it's not just the Canadians who are super buff. They just happen to wear the tightest shirts.

MORRIS: I don't think they could get tighter shirts if they tried.

KEITH: He kids, but Morris says the shirts and the muscles they reveal are a good advertisement for the fitter side of curling. He hopes it will get more people to take the sport seriously. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Sochi.

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