This month marks the second time in five years that Kalamazoo’s Wings Stadium has hosted the U.S.A. National Curling Championships, a competition that decides which curlers will compete in the World Championships.
“We put on such a great event in 2010 we were contacted to host the Nationals again in 2015,” says Rob Underwood, Wings Stadium entertainment director. “We have a local curling club too so curling is already a part of our culture, and this event helps creates an awareness of the sport.”
The Kalamazoo Curling Club, which is housed at Wings Stadium, was established in 2008 as a hub for new and experienced curlers in the greater Kalamazoo area. Since the 2010 U.S.A. Nationals, the club has grown in membership.
The club worked in conjunction with Wings Stadium and Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. to create a welcoming atmosphere for the championships in 2010, Underwood says, and they’re all hoping for an equally successful event Feb 14-21.
“When Wings Stadium hosts an event like this, it really helps the whole community,” says Michael Mortlock, director of operations at Greenleaf Hospitality, which owns Wings Stadium. “People come from all over the country to stay at our hotels and eat at our restaurants and so it boosts our local economy.”
Curler Joe Polo, the defending champion of the 2014 U.S.A. Curling Nationals, a champion of the 2011, 2010, 2006 and 2005 U.S.A. National Championships and a 2006 Olympic bronze medalist, will be one of the competitors.
“I had a lot of fun in Kalamazoo (in 2010), and I really like it there,” Polo says. “I even came back to be in the Do-Dah Parade in June. The last time we were in Kalamazoo we won the nationals so hopefully it’s a good omen to come back.”
Polo, who lives in Duluth, Minn., first started curling at age 10 when he and a friend started playing in a Sunday-night junior league.
“Neither one of us was very good at basketball so we decided to try curling,” he says.
A lot of people start curling with their families, and amateur and professional curlers span many age and skill levels, Polo says.
The Kalamazoo Curling Club offers membership and league play for locals interested in beginning to curl or picking up the sport again. Polo says having local clubs and leagues makes it possible for anyone to learn how to curl.
“I know a lot of people who started earlier than me and a lot who started in their 40s,” he says. “There are also curlers in their 80s who are still playing. It’s an easy sport to play. It’s just a hard sport to play very, very well.”
To achieve an Olympic level of curling, Polo spent many years practicing every day, he says. He has other commitments now, like work and family, that keep him from a strict daily practice schedule, but he still spends a lot of time on the ice.
“I like the camaraderie of all the people I know from all over the world, “ he says. “We just got done playing the Curling Night in America event against New Zealand, and I saw someone I played against in 2003. We hit it off again. It’s fun to see the people you know from competing the last 10 to 20 years.”
If you don’t know a lot about curling, or even how it works, being a spectator at Nationals is a great way to learn, Polo says.
“Anybody from Kalamazoo that comes to the event can sit down next to anyone who looks like they know what they’re talking about and that person is going to talk to them, welcome them in and try to make them feel as comfortable around the sport as they possibly can,” he says.
A lot of people who attend the Nationals know a lot about curling, says Underwood, and come from all over the country to see the championships.
“There are some avid curling fans, and we have clubs that offer to volunteer to put the event together, be on-ice officials and scorekeepers.”
Aside from sitting in the stands with people who are intimate with the sport and willing to teach, there’s one other amazing opportunity for Kalamazoo residents, Mortlock says.
“People attending will get the chance to be close to athletes who are either Olympic athletes or who are vying to be Olympic athletes,” he says. “That doesn’t happen every day.”