Ryan Harnden and E.J. Harnden sweep as Brad Jacobs throws a rock at the Roar of the Rings Canadian Olympic Curling Trials. Getty Images
In 1987, two of the finest athletes in the sport of curling arrived at a pre-Olympic camp with high hopes of representing Canada at the 1988 Winter Games. Both had been world champions.
There was but one issue with their bid to reach the pinnacle of international sport: Neither could do a sit-up.
“I mean, we could have, if someone had been holding our feet,” said Paul Savage, one of two curlers sent home by Canadian officials and instructed to lose 20 pounds.
At a time when cigarettes and beer were as much a part of curling as ice and brooms, the very notion of a pre-Olympic physical-conditioning test was controversial. But when curling re-emerges on the world stage in Sochi next month, it will do so in the midst of a fitness revolution.
Curling may seem relatively easy compared to other Olympic sports such as, say, ski jumping. But launching a 40-pound rock down a sheet of ice toward a specific target requires a high-degree of balance, precision and athleticism.
At the elite level of the sport, which is often likened to chess on ice, curlers increasingly are adopting unorthodox training routines. Weightlifting, for instance, and jogging. They’re even watching their diets. At select international competitions, some are eschewing curling’s traditional sports drinks, namely lagers and ales.
As a result, the image of the Olympic curler is changing.
“The people playing look like athletes now,” said American curler John Shuster, 31, who will be competing in his third Olympics. “In the Olympic Village, we used to stick out. Like, ‘Oh, there’s those curlers.'”
The Canadian men’s team, which will be favored to win gold in Sochi, is nicknamed the Buff Boys. Two of them recently posed for a “Men of Curling” calendar. One can bench-press 300 pounds. They work with personal trainers, nutritionists and a sports psychologist and spend over an hour a day in the gym, four to six days a week.
“They’re ripped,” said Mike Harris, who won a silver medal for Canada at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. “When I was in Nagano, it was just crazy to think of anyone working that hard.”
On the women’s side, the reigning world-champion team is led by 23-year-old Eve Muirhead of Britain, who once walked the runway at a New York fashion show and now spends her days training full-time at the Scottish Institute of Sport. Through social media, competitors around the globe marvel at her team’s workout habits.
“The Muirhead team, oh my gosh,” said American curler Debbie McCormick. “All they tweet about is just pictures in the gym.”
Curling, which surged in popularity during the 2010 Olympics, is one of the world’s most social sports. It is considered proper etiquette for the winning team to buy the losing team a round of drinks. The losing team then reciprocates. Sometimes, the winning team re-reciprocates, and back and forth it goes. Curlers are exceedingly polite in this way.
Likened to chess on ice, curling (here in the 1920s) never was a physically demanding sport. But today’s curlers tend to be very fit. Topical Pres Agency/Getty Images
But at the top level of the sport, the fitness boom is putting an end to that tradition. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s actually rare, when you’re at a high-level event, for two teams to go for a drink afterwards,” said Team Canada’s E.J. Harnden, 30. “The two teams will still sit down, but they’ll be sipping a water or having a protein shake.”
The culture change is attributed to the rise of curling as an Olympic sport. After a 56-year absence from the Winter Games, curling returned as a demonstration sport in 1988 and again in 1992, becoming a medal sport in 1998.
The higher stakes brought increased funding from national Olympic committees and corporate sponsors, which has allowed curlers in several countries to become full-time professionals. In the U.S. and Canada, most Olympic curlers still have regular jobs. But even those who must balance training regimens with day jobs are increasingly treating the sport like a profession.
“The Olympics have changed the face of curling,” said Vic Rauter, a longtime Canadian curling broadcaster.
As for curlers looking more athletic, no one would argue that this change is for the worse. But in a sport that evokes shuffleboard more than snowboarding, how much does conditioning matter?
“I would think if you’re in reasonable shape, that should be enough,” said Orest Meleschuk, one of the top Canadian curlers of the 1960s and ’70s. “Curling is not a physical game. It’s not like a lot of the other sports.”
When he won the world championship in 1972, Meleschuk took his final shot with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth as he slid onto the ice. This was in an era when multiple ashtrays would be placed alongside the ice so that curlers wouldn’t have to walk too far to find one.
Even now, there is some disagreement about the correlation between fitness and winning. “I don’t think the team that’s in the best shape is going to be the best team, because there’s so much more to curling,” Shuster said. “It’s a lot like golf. (Finesse) is as important or more important than the big muscles.”
But just as Tiger Woods changed the way golfers think about fitness, the success of curlers with athletic-looking physiques has made conditioning fashionable. Among the members of Canada’s gold medal-winning men’s team in 2010 was a personal trainer who wrote a book on curling-specific workouts.
“Back in the ’90s and the early 2000s, you could get away with not being so physically fit, because the people you were competing against weren’t either,” said the U.S.’s McCormick, 40, who works out with a personal trainer twice a week. “You have to evolve with your competitors.”
In a typical game, curlers will walk 2 miles or more. Mentally, workouts can improve focus under pressure. Where strength and endurance play the biggest role is in sweeping, in which two teammates furiously scrub the ice in front of a moving stone to reduce friction and help it travel further. The greater the force a sweeper can exert on the ice, the faster the stone will go.
“The stronger guys are better at it,” said Harris, the former Canadian Olympic medalist. “I hate to say it.”