Curling fans hoping to build sport locally

“Learn to Curl’’ will be held Aug. 25 at Galactic Ice

07/03/18 Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / Working on and introductory to curling program at Galactic Ice in Altoona are (from left) Jon Christoff, Sean McTighe, and John Kauffman.

The sport of curling, which is played on ice and had its origins in Scotland in the 16th century, generated a surge of national appeal in the United States this past February.

That’s when the United States men’s curling team won an Olympic gold medal by defeating Sweden in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang.

A Northern Cambria man, John Christoff, 36, is attempting to spread his zeal for the sport with an introductory curling program for men and women ages 18 and over that will be held on Saturday, Aug. 25 from 2-6 p.m. at Galactic Ice.

Christoff hopes that the initial Learn to Curl program — which will be a one-day event featuring a pair of two-hour sessions, with a limit of 40 participants per session — will ignite a spark of interest in the sport in the local area.

Christoff has created a Facebook page — with a search code of Rail City Curling Club — that attracted 150 followers who have expressed interest in curling.

“After the U.S. team won gold, (interest) spread like wildfire,” said Christoff, who is employed as a physical therapist assistant at X-Cel Therapy in Northern Cambria. “We’ll have our first event in August, called a Learn to Curl. It’s something new, and we hope it’s something that people can get excited about.”

The Learn to Curl program will introduce people to the sport of curling, a sport in which players slide 44-pound stones on a sheet of ice toward a circular target area, which is known as a house.

The paths of the stones can be further influenced by players known as sweepers, who use brooms to alter the state of the ice in front of the stone. The objective behind curling is to accumulate the highest score for a game, and points are scored for the stones resting closest to the center of the house.

“The first Learn to Curl will basically be broken down into a couple different segments — getting people familiar with things such as the basics of the sport, the rules, pushing the delivery of the stones, how to get the stones to curl, sweeping, and how different members of a curling team work,” Christoff said. “We’re trying to get people here to experience the sport. Nobody around our area has played it very much, but it’s something that I think will grow.

“The first Learn to Curl will be in August, and we’ll probably open it up for more Learn to Curl events for people who can’t make the first one. We’re going to have as many introductory events as needed so that anybody who wants to try it, can.”

Bigger plans are in the works if the initial interest is high.

“Once we get through as many Learn to Curls as we need to hold, we’re probably going to offer a clinic next October and November that will allow people to progress their skills in the game so that they can prepare for a competitive league or leagues, which we will hope to form in 2019,” Christoff said. “How many leagues we have will depend on how much interest and how successful the early events are. The vision is to ultimately form as many leagues as we possibly can.”

Teams from some cities have become skilled and proficient enough to participate in the annual Arena National Championships.

“Pittsburgh had both a men’s and women’s team this year participate in the Arena Nationals that were held in Salt Lake City (Utah) in May,” Christoff said.

Christoff has been getting assistance in his endeavor from the United States Curling Association and the Grand National Curling Club, and from John Kauffman, Galactic Ice skating director, and Sean McTighe, the general manager at Galactic Ice.

Kauffman sees the introduction of curling at Galactic Ice as a means for the facility to broaden its scope of activities.

“We’ve never had curling at Galactic Ice, and Galactic Ice is a full-use facility, so we’re trying to encompass everything from curling to figure skating to hockey to learn-to-skate,” said Kauffman — who, along with Christoff and several members of the Pittsburgh curling club — will serve as an instructor for the initial Learn to Curl session in August.

“Curling is like playing shuffeboard on ice,” Kauffman said. “I think this is a great opportunity for people who want to try something new. It gives them a chance to come in, cool off and try a new sport. Any time we can offer something new for people in the area, it’s always a plus.”

Through his contacts with the Grand National Curling Club, Christoff got help in temporarily renting curling equipment for the August start-up event from a curling club based in Meadville.

If people decide to get extensively involved in curling and purchase their own equipment, Christoff said that the cost is very affordable.

“The cost of getting outfitted for curling is not very much at all,” Christoff said. “The broom is the most expensive item, and the upper-end ones run from $120 to $150. Brooms for beginners run for about $40 to $45, which is the equivalent of buying a baseball bat at Walmart.”

People who are interested in attending the first Learn to Curl event can get information from Christoff’s Facebook page by searching “Rail City Curling Club.”

Part of the public appeal of curling is that success in the sport can be attained by somebody who is working a regular, everyday job. That was certainly the case in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

“I think it’s relatable — everybody can do it,” Christoff said. “You have to put the time in, but people can hold an everyday job, and the sport still gives them the hope of someday becoming an Olympian.”