Curling

Amber Hildebrandt - Tuesday Feb. 18, 2014 04:42 ET

Canada’s curling evolution, from pudgy to ripped

Today's teams train hard for the Games

Canadian curler Ryan Fry throws a stone in Sochi

Buff Canadian curler Ryan Fry throws the stone during a round robin match at the Ice Cube Curling Center in Sochi (Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

Ahead at the 1988 Calgary Games, Canadian officials ordered champion skip Ed (The Wrench) Werenich to lose his belly.

The outspoken curler slimmed down by 20 pounds, but bristled at trying to force fitness on the gentleman’s sport.

"Don’t try to ram it down our throat that you have to be physically fit to play this game," Werenich told CBC at the time. "Not after our track record."

Twenty-five years later, have a look at Canada’s Olympic curlers in Sochi.

Both the men’s curling team,Team Jacobs, and the women’s, Team Jones, exude health and fitness.

At the Olympic Village, the buff members of Team Jacobs – skip Brad Jacobs, third Ryan Fry, second E.J. Harnden, lead Ryan Harnden and fifth Caleb Flaxey – turn heads for their biceps instead of potbellies. And the team knows it, describing their brand as the "young, fit guys in curling."

"Half their team are built like football players," said Canadian curler John Morris, whose team won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Games. "They’re pretty chiselled."

Bringing that level of athleticism to the sport is not only giving Canadian curlers a competitive advantage, but also helping to change perceptions of the sport, said Morris, author of the 2010 fitness guide for curlers titled Fit to Curl.

No longer is there a national debate about whether curling – once a beer-swilling social activity popular in prairie towns –  is a sport.

Olympics spur image change

The winter sport, which originated in 16th-century Scotland, debuted on the Olympic stage in the first ever games in 1924. After that it made a few appearances as a so-called "demonstration sport," essentially an attempt to convince officials to give it a spot.

That was the case at the 1988 Calgary Games, when Canada was trying to convince the world of curling’s validity as a sport, even though one of the country’s most famous curlers didn’t recognize it as such. "The best way to promote curling is as an activity, not a serious workout," said Werenich at the time.

The public, too, cast doubt on whether an activity played by 40-year-olds constituted a sport. It took a decade for the sport to firmly entrench itself at the Olympics as an official sport in 1998.

The evolution of curling began in earnest when the sport made it onto the official Olympic roster in 1998. 

"That’s when it really took a turn," said Morris. "You saw a lot of curling athletes, their body shape and image change."

Part of the reason for the changing physique of Canadian curlers is that it has simply become more competitive.

Whereas it used to be a niche sport embraced by Canada, Scotland, Sweden and a few other European countries, its popularity is now soaring in Asia and other parts of the world.

'The whole package'

Nowadays, 53 member associations make up the World Curling Federation, with recent country converts such as Mongolia, Israel, Kosovo and Bulgaria. Still, Canada accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s curlers.

In order to compete, a professional curler's arsenal can include personal trainers, nutritionists and sports psychologists.

"You’re always looking for an edge," said Cheryl Bernard, skip of Canada’s silver-medal winning women’s curling team in 2010. "What I’ve really noticed in the past few years is curlers are actually adopting a fitness regime. They’re training. They’re realizing that you’ve gotta be the whole package."

Bernard admits to being a fitness buff. "Probably over the top for curling!" she says, laughing. She’s worked with a trainer for five years.

Meanwhile, Morris, who also plays baseball, hockey and golf, is a certified fitness trainer and has both off- and on-season workout regimens.

In the off-season, the Chestermere, Alta.-based curler works to build up muscle to strengthen the core and legs that help to push hard out of the hack for heavy takeouts. In winter, the team aims to maintain strength but also work on flexibility and balance with activities like hot yoga.

"That really translates well onto the curling ice," said Morris.

In a test done for Morris’s book, researchers found curlers burned an average of 750 calories during a 10-end game. Not as high as energy-consuming sports like cross-country skiing and skating perhaps, but not insignificant.

Don't forget curling traditions

Bernard says that despite wider recognition and better understanding of the sport, the old jokes about curling haven’t completely disappeared.

"A lot of people still to this day will even say, ‘That’s not a sport,’" said the Calgary curler.

But once they stop on the ice at her clinics or camps, Bernard says, "The No. 1 comment I get from all first-time players is ‘this is way harder than we ever thought.’"

Despite its newfound athletic prowess, the game is still unique among the Winter Games, where events often focus on races to the finish or tricks in the air. Curling requires a technical and strategic precision that’s led some to call it "chess on ice."

Bernard, who co-wrote a book about the mental aspects of curling called Between the Sheets: Creating Curling Champions, says it’s no longer enough to rely heavily on strategy over athleticism – or vice versa.

"You need to be 100 per cent in both," she said.

Though professional curlers have moved well beyond the sport’s roots, Morris says he won’t let the fitness demands stop him from enjoying the requisite beer after a game.

"We still do that because that’s part of the game. We don’t want to lose that tradition," said Morris. "It just means we have to work out a little harder to burn off those few extra calories."

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