These are heady times for the tiny number of Indian athletes who play the ice-based sport of curling. Yesterday, an Indian team of P. N. Raju, Girithar Anthay, Vinay Goenka and Kishan Vasant registered the first-ever win for Indian men at the ongoing Pan Continental Curling Championships-B Division in Calgary, Canada. Last month, the country was also represented, for the first time, at the World Mixed Curling Championship 2022, where the team finished 24th overall, out of 35 teams. The latter team included the 22 year-old Govula Tejasree, a rising star in Indian curling, and her mentor Raju, possibly the best known curling athlete from the country.
Curling in India might seem a little strange to most people. After all, curling requires certain specific climatic conditions—temperatures between -4 to -6 degree Celsius with humidity maintained at no more than 35%. Tejasree lives in Tirupati, Tamil Nadu, where the average temperature remains around 26 degrees Celsius. When Tejasree told her wrestling coach that she had seen a game of curling on TV and wanted to give it a shot, he had brushed it aside.
Also Read The rise of open water swimming in India
“How can he say that people from South India cannot be good at curling, I thought. I decided that I would try harder than usual and even in the harshest training circumstances, did not show any weakness,” she says. Wearing just a regular tracksuit and shoes, she practiced on ice at a National Camp organized by the Curling Federation of India (CFI) in Gulmarg’s biting cold earlier this year. Here, she was introduced to Raju, 38. In the short time since, Tejasree has already attended training sessions in Kazakhstan as part of the Indo-Kazakhstan Curling Camp, and the Kazakhstan Open Curling Championships.
Curling is a team sport played on ice. Two teams take turns to throw and slide a granite stone (that weighs about 20kg) towards a target known as the ‘House’. Each team has a captain and a vice-captain who direct the play for the team. Eight stones are used by each team, with players delivering two stones each. The one who throws doesn’t do the sweeping motion that is most easily noticed on television. Both roles are important though, since the throw requires strength and aim, and the sweeping of the ice helps the stone to glide easily to its target. The aim is to throw the stones closest to the house (which looks much like a bulls-eye) and points are given to how close the stone ends up to the centre of the house (known as the ‘Button’).
Tejasree’s goal is a formidable task. The sport is still in its infancy, in a country with a tropical climate such as ours. This challenge is well understood by Dr. Rashmi Saluja, president of CFI. Saluja has been instrumental in growing the sport in India, in spite of this challenge. “Curling is not a mass sport or a street sport. You can’t just pick up a bat and ball after school and head out to play. The equipment is expensive and usually clubs and federations own them, not individuals. The infrastructure has been the biggest block for players. As a federation, therefore, that has been our main task—to grow the sport in spite of infrastructural constraints,” she says. The CFI is not recognized national sport federation, but is affiliated with the World Curling Federation.
The federation, after some research, found Gulmarg’s weather to be the most conducive for curling. In 2021, the CFI organized the inaugural national championships there, followed by a junior and sub-junior level competition in the same year. “What was surprising for us however was how states in the South participated. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka won the maximum number of medals, and this speaks volumes about the awareness and work the state-level federations are doing,” Saluja says.
The CFI wants to have India compete in the 2024 Winter Olympics in Paris, and is trying to popularize the sport. Younger players are now introduced to and encouraged to practice ‘iceless’ curling in their schools.The federation has already created such iceless curling tracks in cities like Amritsar, Lucknow and Udaipur. This form of street or iceless curling uses a flat, smooth surface (such as those found in school gyms) as a replacement for ice. Two target mats (the house or rings in curling parlance) is placed at either end of the floor. The scoring follows the same rules as ice curling with teams taking turns to throw the stones towards the houses.
In the next stage, promising players practice on ice-skating rinks. The federation admits that the number of ice-skating rinks, presently around 30 across the country, are not enough and plans to increase this number in the coming years. Finally, before tournaments, camps are organized where young players are mentored, and teams can play together to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their peers.
While CFI was formed in 2010, it has only been in the last three years that the federation has started organizing camps and training programs. The eventual idea is to have at least two national camps each year. Curlers are selected from state chapters to participate in the national camp, where a technical committee conducts tests and selects them for international events.
When it comes to curling, intense focus is of the greatest importance. “The top teams have to be good technically. That doesn’t just mean knowing the proper technique and being in good physical condition, but also be able to make decisions under pressure. Games last for 2-3 hours, and championships go on for nine to ten days. So, you have to be focused for a long stretch,” says Raju, a non-resident Indian living in San Francisco, US. He was a member of an Indian team that made history earlier this year with a podium finish (1st runners up) at the 21st Curling Cup World Curling Tour (WCT) Mixed Doubles 2022 in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Also Read Kho Kho gets a league of its own
Raju shares his own mantra for success. Having picked up curling only after moving to the US in 2014, he insists that top players need intense focus to succeed. He recommends doing mindfulness exercises, yoga and meditation. To be able to ‘throw’ after ‘sweeping’, players also needs to be able to bring their heart rate down quickly. Therefore, he recommends players combine strength training with high intensity interval training (HIIT). “When you are sliding, you stay in a deep lunge position for almost 30 feet. Your core is balancing most of your weight but the hip and groin does feel pressure. These are therefore the most commonly injured muscles as well. It is also common that one side of your body gets used more than the other so the muscles might be more developed on that side.”
Physical training and mentoring go hand in hand for the players. Thankfully, according to Saluja, CFI has been supported so far by international peers and coaches. Last year, CFI received on-ice equipment as part of a World Curling Federation (WCF) development assistance programme. “Once the sport becomes a televised event and we win more matches, the interest will pick up even more. But till then we need the support of private players to help build the infrastructure and encourage the players. Only then will it be possible to convert players to medal winners,” she says.
Sohini Sen is a freelance writer based in Delhi.
Also Read Who are India's new sporting heroes?