When Ann Chase and her husband were planning their trip to Pyeongchang for the Olympics, she set her sights on nabbing tickets to the most glamorous event of the Games: Figure skating. Her husband, however, had decidedly humbler ambitions.
"He was like, 'No, CURLING!' And I was like, 'OK, that's like a $40 nap,'" Chase, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, said with a laugh before a recent curling match at the Gangneung Curling Centre. "But then you get excited about it, you start watching it on TV. And we were trying to learn the jargon and we're like, 'OK, this is actually kind of cool!'"
Chase's gradual warming toward the often confounding sport of curling mirrors that of many people in the United States. While their Canadian neighbors have long revered the game of roaring rocks and feverish sweeping, Americans have generally derided the sport as a bit dull.
But that's changing. Since 2000, the number of U.S. curling clubs registered with the national organization USA Curling has nearly doubled, from 99 to 185. And while curling in the U.S. was once relegated to the upper midwest and small pockets of New England, it has expanded to many southern and western states. Even Hawaii has a curling club.
At Pyeongchang, Americans are embracing the sport for its chess-like strategy and oddball factor. There's the fun of seeing what garishly colored pants the Norwegians will wear each day, the challenge of trying to anticipate the teams' next moves, and — best of all — the curlers' quirky personalities.
American curlers Matt and Becca Hamilton, siblings from Wisconsin, have been particularly popular with U.S. fans. On social media, tweets about the duo bear the hashtag #HamFam, and Matt's mustache and red baseball cap have inspired plenty of memes likening him to the Nintendo character Mario. On the ice, they occasionally squabble like, well, siblings. It's all very real — which is part of the appeal.
"You get to understand the players' personalities because everybody's mic'd up," says Joe Polo, a member of the U.S. curling team. "You can definitely tell what Hammy's all about; he's a goofball out there, and all the other guys. I think that's the biggest thing, people can really make a connection to the players."
Curling is a sport tailor-made for a nation that loves getting to go behind the scenes, says Matt Hamilton's wife, Jen Hamilton. Unlike, say, ski jumping where the athletes are on and off the screen in a flash, curling matches last around three hours, giving viewers an in-depth experience as they watch the players strategize, joke around and holler orders.
"People are just realizing that it can actually be really fun to watch," she says. "You're spending three hours fighting with them for the win."
Americans have also received much more exposure to the sport on TV in recent years. At the Olympics, curling coverage is a constant. It has the heaviest schedule of any sport at the Winter Games, with four matches being played simultaneously up to three times a day.
"It's like they started showing poker on TV and all of a sudden, everybody started playing poker," says Polo. "They started showing curling and everybody's enjoying watching it."
More exposure means more opportunity for Americans to learn the rules to this 500-year-old sport. Which, let's face it, are pretty perplexing to the uninitiated.
Chau Tran, an American stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea, first got into curling while flipping the channels during the Sochi Olympics. Though he was initially confused, once he grasped the basic concept — which is to get your stones close to the center of the circular target — he was entranced.
On Friday, he sat with his wife and daughter watching the Sweden vs. U.S. match, waving an American flag. The Americans eventually lost, bringing their record to 1-2 in the nine-game round robin. Still, the fun of curling for Tran is figuring out the strategy. Players have to anticipate their opponents' next several moves before deciding their shot.
"It's a lot more than just throwing a stone," he says.
Avery Bretschneider, a Minnesota native whose brother-in-law is a member of the U.S. curling team, has recently seen his friends in Nebraska coming around to the sport. And he's been glad to educate them on what it's all about.
"You try to compare it as like darts and shuffleboard, maybe a little bocce ball," he says. "Once people get started watching it, then it's easier to explain the rules. It's not a simple game."
That's something even the families of curlers admit is true. When Jen Hamilton first met Matt, her knowledge of curling was limited to a vague idea that it was an Olympic sport.
"We've been together eight years," she says. "I think it probably took six years for me to understand what the heck was going on."