Zsombor Bathy has kept two mementos from his trip to Denmark in 2003: a shirt bearing the word ‘NORGE’ (Norway) and a pair of professional curling shoes. They are souvenirs of his foray into the world of international sport, when as a 17-year-old from Melbourne he represented Australia in a junior international curling tournament.
Most of us rarely get the chance to watch curling, let alone play it. Personally I only notice the sport once every four years, during the winter Olympics. There’s something weirdly fascinating about curling. While many winter sports are about speed and danger – from the chest-thumping bravado of the ski jump to the outright insanity of the skeleton, in which a lunatic hurtles head first down a tunnel of ice on something the size of a bread board – curling is a sport of grace and strategy. The best throwers attain the tranquillity of a Zen master as they glide over the ice, sending each stone on its way with a gentle tweak, as if giving it its freedom.
Curling is not unlike bowls on ice. Two teams of four players compete to slide eight stones closest to the centre of a circular target, known as the ‘house’. Techniques to control the stones include direction, power, spin which imparts curl, and the work of frantic sweepers, who accompany the stone along the ice with brooms. The amount of strategy involved has led to the game’s nickname, ‘chess on ice’.
So how did a Melbourne teenager, with next-to-no sporting experience, find himself wearing the uniform of the national junior curling team? It began with the arrival of a French-Canadian teacher, Frederic LeGrand, at Karingal Park Secondary College. A keen curler, LeGrand encouraged his Australian students to try the sport.
He took a group of year 11 and 12s, including Zsombor, to an ice rink in Bendigo, one of very few in Victoria set up for curling. The students learned the rudiments of the game, though lacking the proper equipment – rather than curling shoes, Zsombor wore old runners with a strip of plastic glued to the bottom of one foot. After a few curls, he was hooked. “I thought it was a really interesting sport.”
After just three weeks of practice, and a competition among the Karingal Park players, LeGrand revealed that he would take a boys’ team and a girls’ team to Denmark as Australian junior representatives.
The prospect of international competition galvanised the community. There were fundraisers, sponsorship from the local RSL, support from school and parents. Channel Ten filmed the teams at practice. Adding to the excitement, for many of the students it was their first trip abroad.
First stop was Vancouver, LeGrand’s home town. The local curling community took in the novice Aussie players. They provided encouragement, coaching, practice facilities, and proper equipment, including shoes (one slider shoe, another with a rubber grip on the sole) and brooms for sweeping. The elite Aussie curlers’ uniform consisted of school sports jackets with the name of the school replaced with ‘AUSTRALIA’. After another week of practice, now growing in confidence, they were ready to set out for Denmark.
LeGrand’s Australian team, with Zsombor as skip, took part in the World Junior B competition in Tarnby. Twelve teams competed, including Denmark, the USA, Holland, France, New Zealand and Norway. Competition was serious, but the atmosphere was friendly, with all the teams staying at the same hotel. The inexperienced Australians acquitted themselves honourably against their more credentialled opposition.
“We completed a lot of games, although we were outclassed,” Zsombor recalls. “We had only been playing a few weeks, and the other teams had been playing every day for years. But I was proud that we played so well, and we managed to win our final game, against Wales.”
At the end of the competition players swapped shirts, and Zsombor returned home with a shirt from the eventual winners, Norway.
For the young athletes, the tournament was a chance to experience international travel, community and friendship with people of other nationalities, brought together by a shared passion for curling.
Since the highlight of Tarnby, Zsombor’s curling career has been on hold. Le Grand encouraged his players to apply for positions at the Victorian Institute of Sport, but they were not shortlisted. “It’s a very niche sport in Australia,” Zsombor says. “I’d love it to be more accessible, but it’s very hard to get the facilities and the equipment you need. You can’t just rock up to Bendigo and curl. I haven’t curled since 2003, although I enjoy watching it at the Olympics.”
But although he’s only a spectator these days, if the opportunity ever arises again, Zsombor still has his curling shoes.
Find out more about curling at the World Curling Federation website http://www.worldcurling.org/