SOCHI — Let's face it: If the only time you pay attention to the sport of curling is once every four years, you are hardly in the minority.
Like with plenty of Olympic sports, summer or winter, the spotlight curling receives is tantalizingly brief, and even then it is often overshadowed by more glamorous events like figure skating and ice hockey.
But when the Sochi lights dim in a couple of weeks and America's eyes return to more traditional sporting pursuits, a dedicated and loyal following will continue to embrace the game, even in parts of the United States where you would least expect it.
It is no shock that frosty environs such as the Upper Midwest are hotbeds for curling as with many Winter Games. Yet according to the U.S. Curling Association, curling clubs exist in Texas, Arizona, Mississippi and Florida. There's even one among the glittering lights of Hollywood.
A younger clientele has gravitated toward the sport, which has become popular with birthday parties and even date nights. If that progress is to continue, the Winter Games will play a vital role.
The curling competition in Sochi begins on Monday.
"The Olympics is in everyone's home," said Kim Nawyn, U.S. Curling's director of growth and development. "It's a way for the mass public to be exposed to something they wouldn't normally. So really that has been our major boost."
The Hollywood Curling Club, just north of Los Angeles, refuses to accept curling's place as an underdog sport. And in a team of women known as the Bond Girls, who play tournaments around the U.S. and overseas with neon pink outfits and feisty attitudes, the club has the perfect saleswomen.
The Bond Girls are skippered by Marissa Messier, a creative content producer for Disney who fell in love with the game while filming a company television project at a curling club. They are hardly world-beaters but are part of a new movement within the game that is helping to shed its staid image.
"It is pretty cool to be able to change people's perceptions of what it involves," Messier said. "People still joke about it — they ask if we practice by sweeping our kitchen floor — but when they come and give it a try, it really opens their eyes."
For starters, curling is far from a sedate pastime; it requires not only skill and accuracy but also good strength and fitness. The sweeping element, which is used to alter the speed of the 44-pound stone by temporarily warming the ice, can be exhausting. It is a combination of sideways skating technique and keeping in the right place in line with the stone as it moves down the ice toward the scoring zone at the far end — known as the "house."
"You can burn a lot of calories," Bond Girls member Donna Umali-Mendoza said. "That is one thing people don't think of, but most of the best players have a really high fitness level."
Curling spiked in popularity after the Olympics in Vancouver four years ago, where large crowds followed the event. But while there is prize money available at certain tournaments, it is not enough to pursue a full-time career for most top American players.
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The U.S. men's curling team in Sochi consists of a restaurant manager, science teacher, college student and engineer and is not surprisingly rated among the weaker teams in the field of 10. The U.S. women are considered to have an outside shot at a medal.
Domestically, the Bond Girls are among several teams who travel to tournaments around the country, regularly jaunting off to locations such as North Dakota and Minnesota and most recently Las Vegas. Determined to promote their sport, they stay active on social media and distribute curling-related souvenirs. They plan to hold "learn to curl" open days timed to coincide with the end of the Sochi Games.
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