INDIAN TRAIL, N.C. — When Marietta DiTommaso of Lake Wylie talks about curling, she’s not referring to her hair.
DiTommaso and husband Vic have been hooked on the sport of curling for two years.
“We were invited to play and fell in love with it,” DiTommaso said.
Curling, invented in medieval Scotland, is described as similar to shuffleboard on ice. The 2014 Winter Olympics in February will be the sixth time curling, which became an official sport of the Winter Olympic Games in 1998, is part of the program.
Charlotte Centre Curling Club member Dave DeFehr of Troutman, N.C., introduced the DiTommasos to the sport.
“I was like, ‘curling, let’s do this,’” she said. “It’s a very gentlemen’s game starting with everyone shaking hands.”
The Charlotte club is a mixed league with about 90 members ages 20 to 70. Many are natives of Canada and northern U.S. states, and others like the DiTommasos, who came to the Charlotte area via Florida.
“It’s for everybody,” said club member Jeremy Hozjan of Fort Mill. He started playing at age 13 in his native Saskatchewan. “Once you try it, you get hooked. There’s just so many aspects of the game.”
He introduced his wife, Dawn, who’s from the U.S., to curling when they lived in Ohio. She had never even heard of it, he said.
“The best way to learn is to play it,” Hozjan said. “It’s a great opportunity for couples to do something that’s new and different.”
When the couple moved to the Carolinas, Hozjan said “the hardest decision was that I’d have to give up curling. I figured I’d have to give up all winter sports when I moved South.”
But thanks to the Internet, he found a connection to a group looking to form a curling club in Charlotte.
“There’s a lot more athleticism than people realize and strategy and the social aspect,” Hozan said. “Some refer to it as chess on ice, and I wouldn’t disagree.”
The Charlotte club has met for seasonal leagues since 2009 on Friday nights at Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail.
“Anyone can pick it up,” said member Dale Jennings of Charlotte, “and they’re so welcoming here.”
Jennings, a New York native living in the Carolinas for three years, launched her curling aspirations by accident. While friends were visiting from Boston, she searched the Internet for a Southern food staple, “good grits.” Up came “Grits and Granite Bonspiel” about a curling tournament hosted by the Charlotte club. While checking out the website, charlottecurling.com, she noticed the “start Curling!’ tab.
“I came to learn,” she said,” and one year later, I’m still playing.”
David Pollard of Charlotte is from the North Carolina Outerbanks, but has always loved the cold weather sports.
“I was the first to sell snowboards in the Carolinas,” he said.
Four years ago he discovered curling and bounced from club to club in the region – there are five listed in North and South Carolina – until he found the Charlotte group online. He’s even swept against Olympic athlete and first women’s U.S. World Champion curler Debbie McCormick while in Chicago.
“You can curl anywhere in this country once you start,” Pollard said. “Just great people, that’s the curling community.”
Hozjan expects the upcoming Olympic games to spur more interest.
“We’re prepared for an influx and teaching more people,” he said.
For club members, the camaraderie is a bonus.
“The fun part is broomstacking afterward,” said Jennings, explaining it’s a tradition to go the bar for a drink together afterward.
Following a night of play, “winners treat the losers to the first round,” DiTommaso said.
The Charlotte Centre Curling Club will soon have its own home on Old Statesville Road in Charlotte.
“We are one step closer to having our own facility,” DiTommaso said.
North of city center and convenient to Interstates 77 and 85, the nearly $2 million curling facility will be about 15,000 square feet on about 2.5 acres. The nearest dedicated curling facility is in Maryland.
“We’ll have the southern most dedicated curling ice in the country,” Hozjan said. “It means we are able to hold national and international competitions, and it’s good for the economy of Charlotte.”
The nonprofit club continues to raise money and is looking for donors, including corporate sponsors for naming rights for the facility and names engraved on rocks, seats, bricks and more, Hozjan said.
“We’ve been working on the dedicated facility for curling for about two years now,” said Peter Strickland of Charlotte and head of the building committee. “We really want to get the community involved.”
In the Charlotte area, the demand for ice time is limited by the number of facilities – Extreme Ice Center where the club meets and Ice House in Pineville, N.C.
“A place of our own will give us 168 hours a week if we wish to play,” Strickland said.
It’s important, club members say, because one ice does not fit all sports.
“Curling ice is the hardest ice to make to figure skating,” said Eric Cable of Charlotte and one of the 20 founding members of the Charlotte club. “It’s perfectly smooth, perfectly flat ice.”
At the ice center where they play, all ice sports are accommodated – curling, figure skating and hockey.
“It’s frustrating to play on hockey ice,” Pollard said.
Strickland said they expect to break ground in February and hope to open the curling center next fall. The facility will have room for four to six sheets of play space, seating, lockers, a bar and more.
“As soon as we own the land, off we go, shovels in hand,” Strickland said.
Strickland, who grew up in Ottawa and has played since age 12, like others thought that when he moved South, he’d have to put curling aside. But now with the new facility, curling is looking different in the Carolinas.
“The World Curling Federation has targeted us as key growth market,” he said.
Strickland said the club hosts two successful bonspiels (curling tournaments) a year drawing curlers come from all around North America.
“They’ll come and curl here in Charlotte with nice weather,” he said. “We try to give those coming into Charlotte a good time.”
Along with the new facility making way for different leagues – men’s, women’s, youth, wheelchair, seniors – it will draw curling community interest.
“Curling is the sort of sport you can get national and international attention for because Olympic curlers come by and curl, and you just need decent ice to curl on,” Strickland said.
Hozjan, who taught physical education in Canada, said he used to take students to the rink to curl.
“It’s really an ambition of mine to help this club grow and grow within the community,” Hozjan said.
The weather also factors in.
“They can golf, go swimming, then curl,” he said, “which is unheard of in the northern part of the country.”
Strickland said the club plays October through April. The rest of the year the facility will be available for rental for banquets, parties and other events.
Strickland said one of the draws for curling is “there are few other sports you can be on the same plane as an Olympic athlete.”
He said while he’s sure McCormick would beat him, “I can watch and learn and get better. And it’s a sport that’s wonderful to have people be approachable
“I think Charlotte will be great spot,” he said.
Catherine Muccigrosso • 803-831-8166