Broomtown

When the Olympic Games begin, Bemidji will be watching. The city is home to America’s curling teams—and a place where almost everyone knows how to slide a stone. Even the guy who made your pizza.

TAKE THIS TEST if you’re ever in Bemidji. Walk down a busy street—Paul Bunyan Drive or Beltrami Avenue will do—stop somebody at random, and ask two questions:

1) Have you ever done any curling?

2) If you haven’t, do you know anyone who has?

If you get two “nos,” it means one thing: that person is from someplace else.

Unless you’re a home-schooled shut-in who doesn’t get cable, play golf, ice fish, or go to the store, it’s almost impossible to live in this town and not know something about curling, an ice sport of 16th-century Scottish origin that found a niche here during the bitterly cold winters of the Depression.

If the Paul Bunyan legend is Bemidji’s best-known export, curling is its best-known activity. The Bemidji Curling Club was founded in 1935, two years before the statues of Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox went up on the shores of Lake Bemidji during the city’s winter carnival. Only 300 of the city’s 12,000 residents are official members of the club. But most folks here attended Bemidji High School, which used to have a varsity curling team and has offered curling for years as a phys-ed elective. Even people who don’t curl anymore once spent time on the ice.

The basics of curling can be explained in about 40 seconds. You start with several 42-pound granite stones fitted with handles. Players slide the “rocks” across a sheet of ice, aiming at a circular target roughly 90 feet away. As the stones skate toward the center of the target, turning or “curling” ever so slowly, team members scramble in front of them, sweeping the surface of the ice with brooms. The sweeping action helps melt the ice, allowing the stones to travel straighter and farther. The closer a team’s stones are to the target’s “button,” the more points they earn.

Curling is the kind of sport where anyone who grasps the basics can quickly morph into an expert. At Slim’s, a popular beer-and-burger joint housed in a log cabin just off Bemidji Avenue, televised curling pulled in from Canada by satellite dish beats poker, golf, and sometimes even football when it comes to drawing a crowd. “It’s on all the TVs,” says Lisa Freise, the bar manager. “And people are glued to the TVs.”

So Friese expects standing-room crowds this month as the U.S. men’s and women’s curling teams, based in Bemidji, travel to Turin, Italy, to compete at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Bemidji residents have played an important role in curling’s growth as an Olympic sport. (It was officially added to the Games in 1998.) Four years ago, the U.S. women’s Olympic curling team, or “rink,” tapped the talents of two Bemidji natives, sisters Kari Erickson and Stacey Liapis. (Their father, Mike Liapis, was the team’s coach.) And Bemidjians will again play a pivotal role on the American curling teams at this year’s Winter Games: Five of the ten athletes on the two American rinks (each contains four players and an alternate) hail from Bemidji. The men’s team includes native sons Pete Fenson, who turns 38 this month; Scott Baird, 54; and Joe Polo, 23; as well as two players from Chisholm. On the women’s team are sisters Cassandra “Cassie” Johnson, 24, and Jamie Johnson, 25, plus women from Duluth, Wisconsin, and Alaska.

The United States has yet to win a medal in curling. (The U.S. men were fourth in 1998, and the women fourth in 2002.) So Bemidjians are rooting for the hometown teams: Team Fenson, named for its captain, or “skip,” Pete Fenson, took sixth at last year’s world championships and plans to compete hard in the Games. But it’s Team Johnson, which earned a silver medal at the championships under the direction of Cassie Johnson, that may have the best chance of winning America’s first curling medal.

MOST AMERICANS WOULD probably rank curling, in terms of popular pastimes, somewhere between ice dancing and cleaning out the garage. But in Bemidji, the sport is a time-honored way to pass the year’s darkest days. “It’s a cold place in the winter,” says Scott Baird, the men’s alternate, who last year was inducted into the U.S. Curling Association’s Hall of Fame. “There’s really not many things to do. If you’re not into ice fishing, there’s curling.”

Unlike football or even figure skating, however, curling isn’t likely to lead to fame, fortune, or even a viable career. The best American curlers can’t make enough in prize money to quit their day jobs. So most struggle to balance work or school with training and competing. Fenson owns and operates the Dave’s Pizza restaurants in Bemidji and Brainerd, earning enough to support his wife and two sons and to finance travel to competitions. Baird, who is also married with two kids, sells insurance. John Shuster, a 23-year-old men’s team member from Chisholm, and two of the female curlers work at Home Depot as part of a nationwide program that provides Olympians with both a steady income and the kind of flexible hours that athletes need to juggle employment, training, and competitions.

The U.S. Olympic Committee provides sponsorships and financial help to athletes involved in the Games, but pre-Olympics travel and expenses can cost a curler up to $10,000 in out-of-pocket, non-reimbursable expenses. And there’s no telling how much someone like Baird, for example, will lose in potential commissions because he won’t be writing any new business for a month as the team prepares for and competes in the Olympics.

“I have to take 20 unpaid days from work to make this work,” says Shawn Rojeski, 34, a manufacturing engineer, also from Chisholm, who curls with the Fenson rink. “This is not free.”

So why do it? The social atmosphere of curling—think bowling, only colder—is as much an attraction for players as the competition. In November, Baird, Rojeski, and Shuster were sitting around a table at the Duluth Curling Club bar during a tournament, or “bonspiel.” There were beers all around, and the place was noisy with half-drunk hockey fans stopping in between periods of the UMD vs. UND game at the arena next door. Clearly, these guys were enjoying each other’s company, even though the white-haired Baird was old enough to be Shuster’s father. In a conversation peppered with wisecracks, they debated the wisdom of teammate Joe Polo, who had left an hour earlier to get a tattoo—a decision that did not sit well with Polo’s mother, Mae.

The three stopped joking for a moment to consider the question, Why curl? Why endure the cold, the expenses, the jokes made by people who don’t understand the sport? “Fun is what it’s about,” Baird said. “When it stops being fun, then it’s time to change.”

ON A RECENT AFTERNOON, Fenson stood in the kitchen at Dave’s, engaging his longtime store manager, Chase Jackson, in a long, involved conversation about olives.

Olives.

“And you want to know about his attention to detail?” Jackson said to a visitor, incredulous.

A Bemidji State University grad with a degree in technical illustration and graphic design, Fenson bought Dave’s Pizza in 1996, after several years of running a custom picture-framing shop. The pizzeria has been an area institution since 1958. “I grew up eating Dave’s Pizza,” Fenson says. “When I had a chance to buy it, I knew its history and the product. It was a slam dunk.”

Fenson is meticulous. He insists on house-made dough and freshly sliced ingredients for his pizzas, which means extra prep work for Jackson, the kitchen, and the wait staff. But he also keeps his cool. Even when the place is slammed at dinnertime, Fenson never seems hurried, sliding pizzas in and out of the oven or manning the takeout counter without breaking a sweat. He seems a natural skip, a position that requires smarts and patience. Skips throw the last rocks in a round, or “end.” They also decide the team’s strategy.

A third-generation curler, Fenson threw his first rocks at the Bemidji Curling Club at 13. Both his parents figure in the club’s championship history. Bob Fenson, who manages the club and will coach the U.S. team in Turin, curled on Bemidji’s first national title-winner in 1979. Ten years later, Jan Fenson was part of the club’s first state women’s championship team.

The Bemidji Curling Club isn’t shy about honoring its champions. Seventy-three maroon plywood state title banners are mounted in two rows on the west wall. Until last year, the 25 white national championship banners hung from the rafters like the Celtics’ NBA banners at the old Boston Garden. But some people complained they blocked the view of the big new welcome sign, so the club moved them to the east wall. Growing up, Fenson had only to look up to see the legacy he followed.

 

THIS IS HOW IT WORKS in Bemidji: parents pass curling down to their children, who pass it down to their kids years later, like a family heirloom. Tim Johnson learned the sport from his parents, and he and his wife, Liz, have played for decades. They still have the punch-bowl-size trophy their team won at the national mixed championship in 1980, while Liz was five months pregnant with her first child, Jamie. Tim is a six-time national champion, having won four mixed titles with his wife and two men’s titles on a team with Baird and Fenson in the early 1990s. The Johnsons’ daughters, Cassie and Jamie, are the family’s fourth generation of curlers.

The Johnson girls got an early start in the sport, joining the club’s popular junior league on Sunday nights while they were still in grade school. The youngsters used sawed-off brooms and lighter plastic rocks. “My parents were the ones who showed us the basics,” Cassie recalls. “Then we played mini-games against other kids once we were old enough.”

In 2002, the Johnsons won junior national and world championships and finished third at the Olympic trials. Last year, Team Johnson, rounded out by Maureen Brunt of Portage, Wisconsin, and Jessica Schultz of Anchorage, Alaska, bested two more experienced teams and won the trials. They went on to take the silver medal at the world championships to establish themselves as medal contenders for Turin. (The team later added Duluth’s Courtney George as an alternate.)

“We played out of our minds,” Brunt says. “That was amazing.”

On a Thursday a few months ago, four of the five women met to talk in the bar at the Bemidji Curling Club. Huge color woodcuts of Paul Bunyan and Babe dominate the back wall of the long room, which overlooks the club’s ice. The old jukebox, tucked behind the wide-screen TV and the red upright piano, boasts a diverse mix of selections: Louis Prima, Pete Fountain, Dire Straits, Alan Jackson. Cheap draft beer and soft drinks are available from the bartender; those preferring hard liquor can bring their own and store the bottles in their lockers. Most days, the aroma from a popcorn machine fills the room.

The women ordered pop and bottled waters and fell into an easy banter, like old friends. Brunt, 23, who waitressed at an Irish bar in Madison, Wisconsin, while a University of Wisconsin undergrad, relishes her standing as the social butterfly of the group. But Schultz, 21, a radiology student at Lake Superior College, can match Brunt’s gregariousness. The group talked about the pending Olympic competition and the pressures of training for the Games. Before the final match at trials, Schultz remembered, her hands shook so terribly she couldn’t drink from her water bottle.

Preparing for the Games is time-consuming, requiring a careful balancing of priorities. While Schultz withdrew from Lake Superior College to get ready for the Games—a common decision among Olympic athletes—Cassie chose to finish her bachelor’s degree in design technology at Bemidji State. (She graduated in December.)

“I only needed five credits to graduate, and I figured, what the heck, I’ll work with my teachers around it,” Cassie says. “They’ve been really good at letting me miss classes and make up the work. I didn’t want to sit out a year and then come back for only five credits. I want to jump right into my career after the Olympics instead of going back to school.”

If camaraderie is the key to success in curling, Team Johnson has it down. They live in adjacent apartment buildings not far from the club—Cassie and Jamie in one unit, the others in another. Jamie will be marrying Nate Haskell, a stock broker, in June, and the whole team is in the wedding party. As with the best sports teams, the identities of the individual players seem to have merged into a collective character—especially as the Olympics loom. “My aunt likes to crochet,” Brunt says. “She made us all red, white, and blue scarves. At some point, we have to take a picture with them on and give it to her.”

FOR MORE THAN A YEAR NOW, Mae Polo has pictured this scene in her mind.

She’s standing in the Olympic Stadium in Turin on the opening day of the Winter Games. Maybe it’s snowing. Maybe it’s just cold, the wind whipping off the Alps. But there she is, squinting through her tears to find her son Joe among the hundreds of beret-wearing U.S. athletes, marching and waving in the Olympic opening ceremonies.

On February 10, when the Games actually begin, Polo will be in that stadium. She doubts she’ll be thinking about the $17,000 that she and her husband, John, got as part of a home refinance to cover travel costs: multiple members of the Polo family will need airfare, lodging, and rental cars during the 16 nights they spend in Italy. Tickets to events also can be expensive. At last check, the only passes to the opening ceremonies that Polo could find were selling for $1,200 apiece.

But as Mae Polo cheers, she won’t be thinking about the costs or the cold or the chapping wind. She’ll be thinking about her son’s hard work, his team’s prospects. And she may even forget about Joe’s new tattoo.

Joe Polo is the free spirit of Team Fenson, and the only one who didn’t learn curling from his parents. A friend got him into the same Sunday night junior league as the Johnson girls, and Polo’s parents dropped him off at the club each week while they went bowling.

“My parents started after I did,” Polo says. “They were watching me curl one weekend, and my dad said, ‘Why didn’t you do this and this and this? You would have won.’ And I said, ‘You go out there and try to do that.’ So he did.”

Polo wasn’t as successful talking his teammates into joining him at the tattoo parlor in Duluth. Getting Olympic-themed tattoos as a unity-building exercise is the rage among American Olympic athletes, and Shawn Rojeski said he’d be willing to join Polo—but only if the entire team, including straight-arrow Pete Fenson, got tattoos as well.

“I thought there was no way Pete would even consider it,” Rojeski says. “If somebody had bet me, I’d have thrown my money clip on the table and said, ‘No way.’ But he said, ‘Maybe,’ and I thought, ‘Son of a bitch, I’m gonna get screwed.’”

Rojeski lucked out, though: Fenson never did commit to the tattoo idea. So Polo went to the parlor in Duluth alone, returning with an image on the back of his right shoulder: the Olympic rings, a curling rock in front and, below, the words Torino 2006.

He’s marked now—as a curler and as one of the few American athletes who bear the title Olympian. “I tell people I’m going to the Olympics, and they say, ‘Great, what sport?’” Polo says. “I say curling, and they go, ‘Oh…what’s…that?’ They don’t respect it as much as something they know, like downhill skiing.

“But there are always going to be jokes about curling. You just try to accept it. When people put it down, I just say, ‘Go and try it. See if you can do better.’” MM

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