24 Jan 2019

Ice Ice Naseby: Curling qualifiers put summer on ice

1:47 pm on 24 January 2019

As Central Otago temperatures approached 30°C this week, Naseby forgot summer and focused on ice, as the World Curling Championships qualifiers transfixed the town.

Main street of Naseby, Central Otago

Naseby has a permanent population of 102 to 110, depending who you ask Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

All day the sun had been beating down upon the Maniototo, augmented by a dry wind that rattled through the poplars and flexed them into sinuous bends. The parched, nubbly tussock covering the hills had faded to the colour of age-bleached velvet, schist rock rubbing through the gaps. Rabbits, emboldened by their large numbers, grazed on dusty verges.

A short way down a rural road on the outskirts of Naseby, just before the tarmac gave way to gravel, was a collection of buildings surrounded by wilding pines: a couple of tin sheds, an older weatherboard clubhouse, and a large, squat corrugated iron building with a wooden ramp leading down to a gravel car park. A temperature gauge resting on a faded brown plastic chair in the shade said 26°C.

To step inside the largest building was to put aside the fact that the Central Otago summer ever existed. Under fluorescent lights, in an ambient temperature of 7°, athletes in long sleeves and pants slid granite curling stones across a vast rectangle of ice, shouted commands to their teammates, swept ferociously with padded fabric brooms.

Naseby is home to 102 people and - so says a sign on the edge of town - sits 2000 feet above worry level. It also happens to have New Zealand's only Olympic-standard indoor curling rink. And because of this, it played host this week to the World Curling Championship qualifiers - a last chance for the also-rans to nab the final two places at the world champs in March.

Polish skip Marta Pluta in full cry after releasing a stone

Polish skip Marta Pluta in full cry after releasing a stone Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

The basic rules of curling are similar to bowls: each team of four sends eight stones down the ice sheet. The team that gets a curling stone closest to the button painted beneath the ice scores a point, and extra points for any other stones it's managed to land closer to the button than the opposition. There are ten rounds, or ends, in a match.

Unlike bowls, releasing the stone is only half the job: sweepers use brooms to fractionally melt the surface of the ice in order to reduce surface friction and let the stone travel further, as well as guiding its path. The tactics of where and when to place stones close to the button (drawing), in front of the circular 'house' to protect other stones (guarding), or to knock the other team's stones out (hitting), provide the intrigue.

Curling is a big deal in Scotland, where it originated; in Canada, which boasts a million players; and in a handful of other countries. In New Zealand, it barely registers. There are clubs in Dunedin and Auckland, but the Maniototo has been curling's stronghold since Scottish settlers arrived.

New Zealander Eloise Pointon (right) during the women’s match against Poland

New Zealander Eloise Pointon (right) during the women’s match against Poland Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

How curling ended up being woven so tightly into the culture of this pocket of New Zealand, Naseby resident Pauline Carson couldn't say. "Our grandfathers curled, our fathers curled, it was a part of the Maniototo."

Drive through the district, Cheryl Smith says, and "you'll see sheds with the stones piled up outside and your wee pond". The outdoor players still use the old straw brooms to sweep and a hot toddy on the sidelines is standard.

Smith herself didn't used to give a stuff about curling. She moved from Dunedin to nearby Ranfurly 25 years ago and didn't know a thing about it. "When my kids started doing this at school I thought it was like watching paint dry. I told them that."

What was she doing minding the club bar at the largest international curling event ever held in New Zealand, then? "It gets under your skin. The more you go into the game, it's really tactical and strategic so you get really sucked in. You're biting your nails if you know anyone playing."

She'd been doing a lot of nail-biting, because she knew just about all the New Zealanders playing. The entire men's team and most of the women's team were from the district. This made it hard to find anyone in the room who wasn't a close blood relation of at least one of the players, or a former New Zealand representative themselves. Smith's own daughter Courtney, 19, had already been to the Winter Olympics Youth Games and the junior world champs.

A crowd of Naseby locals watch from the spectators’ lounge

A crowd of Naseby locals watch from the spectators’ lounge Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

A grim mood was settling over the spectators' lounge, an effect heightened by the curtains drawn against the sun and the institutional blue-flecked synthetic carpet. The New Zealand men were in the final throes of their round robin game against England, and a loss almost ensured they would go crashing out of contention. Right now, they were 6-5 up, with just two stones left to play.

Among those watching was Lorne De Pape, who transplanted himself from Canada to New Zealand 27 years ago and ended up representing the country in curling at the 2006 Winter Olympics. "Looks a bit wide I'm afraid," he said, as New Zealand skip (the team strategist) Scott Becker attempted to knock two English stones away at once.

He sounded sceptical about New Zealand's next stone, too. Rather than take out the two English stones, the obvious shot, Becker directed his stone to curl around to sit close to the button. The stone was rapidly slowing as it came in - "Looks a bit light," De Pape said - but, sweeping so hard it seemed they might crack the ice, Becker's teammates managed to guide it in. An over-cooked final stone from England, and New Zealand had the win.

New Zealand men’s skip Scott Becker watches as his teammate prepares to release a stone

New Zealand men’s skip Scott Becker watches as his teammate prepares to release a stone Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

Becker. The name was inescapable. It was there on team shirts: B Becker, SW Becker, SP Becker, P Becker. It was there on a sign in the clubroom that could have been a joke, an earnest tribute, or both: "The Becker Family Lounge". It was Maniototo's mantra: "Becker. Becker. Becker."

The Becker family are curling obsessives even by local standards. It was Peter Becker and his son Sean who agitated for the indoor rink to be built 15 years ago. His younger children, Bridget and Scott, are team skips for the New Zealand women and men respectively.

Stocky, with short brown hair styled to stick up, Scott Becker was gruff on the ice, muttering to himself when he or his teammates played poorly. As the skip, it was his role to literally call the shots, standing at the far end of the ice sheet to indicate with his broom; first, where he wanted the stone to end up, and next, where the thrower should aim.

Skips normally also indicate how fast the stone should be travelling by tapping at different points of their body. "Scotty has a simpler method," Lorne De Pape said. "He just shouts."

But after New Zealand's final game - a comprehensive loss to the Netherlands that killed their qualifying chances - Becker was jovial, straight out of his team uniform and into shorts and a singlet. A Speights stubby had found its way into his hand. He was quite happy for someone else to challenge for the Becker family's curling crown, he said. "The Beckers have been in there a long time - some would say too long."

Growing up in Ranfurly, curling was a kind of predestination. "We've got a little dam out the back of our farmhouse. We, literally, from three years old, grew up with people like dad's friends and dad throwing curling stones about and we would hold on to them as little kids and get skated across the ice."

His sister Bridget was sure there must be a Becker out there who couldn't curl - but she'd never met them.

New Zealand women’s skip Bridget Becker shouts instructions to her teammates.

New Zealand women’s skip Bridget Becker shouts instructions to her teammates. Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

The equal and opposite reaction to curling's traditional Anglo-Saxon stoicism was the Brazilian women's team. The team became internationally competitive athletes the way all armchair spectators like to imagine they could: they saw it on TV during the Olympics and thought, we could do that.

Alessandra Barros - bleach-blonde, fast-talking - first saw curling while living in Vancouver when the city hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics. She was mesmerised. "'Oh my god,' I said, 'I see it, I visualise us there. I visualise Brazilian colours.' I thought, oh my god, we need to have a Brazilian team. Let's put a team together."

There is no curling rink anywhere in Brazil. The team was cobbled together from expats living in Canada, who hired their own coach and gradually played their way up the Vancouver club rankings.

Now they were in Naseby. They loved it. "My state's very similar to that," Anne Shibuya said. "A lot of rivers and small towns. This feeling - it totally reminds me of home." They did wonder, driving from Queenstown, whether they were in the right place though. "We said, we see more cows than people. And rabbits," Barros said.

Brazil’s women’s team (L-R: Luciana Barrella, Anne Shibuya, coach Barbara Zbeetnoff, Alessandra Barros and Debora Monteiro) became interested in curling after seeing it during the 2010 Winter Olympics

Brazil’s women’s team (L-R: Luciana Barrella, Anne Shibuya, coach Barbara Zbeetnoff, Alessandra Barros and Debora Monteiro) became interested in curling after seeing it during the 2010 Winter Olympics Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

The indoor game the Brazilians fell in love with was very different to the outdoor version Pauline Carson grew up with. "The outdoor rink, if you play a good stone, you'll get a drink. But this one here is far more serious." There was an element of luck playing outside that lightened the tone, she said. "If you hit … a bit of a hole in the ice or a pine needle, you don't know where your stone's going to end up."

No chance of that on the indoor rink. The man charged with keeping things in a Narnia-like state of permanent winter all week was Jamie Danbrook, a slight 30-year-old with close-cropped brown hair, who held the title of chief ice-maker and had been flown in from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to groom the ice sheets to a state of perfection.

Perfection was knowing it took him 42 seconds to scoot backwards along each sheet, spraying minute water droplets on the surface of the ice to create the "pebble", a pattern of tiny raised bumps that limit the surface contact - and therefore the friction - between the ice and the stone. The pebble-head he preferred to spray with had 64 holes. Did he use a stopwatch? "Yes."

Moisture inside the rink could create frost on the ice, ruining the playing surface, so he watched the weather forecast like a hawk and checked the ambient temperature inside the rink and the temperature of the ice itself every ten minutes.

The humidity had, in fact, been building all afternoon on the final day of the tournament. As the final ends were played, the smell of petrichor filled the cooling air and within minutes, curtains of freezing rain were moving across the Maniototo.


Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

It was still sheeting down as players and locals gathered that evening inside Naseby's bottom pub (the top pub was for later on), but the crush of human bodies and a steady flow of tap beer cast a warming spell.

The tournament post-match had been styled as a 'banquet', which had led to varying interpretations of the dress code. The Korean men wore tuxes. Alessandra Barros from Brazil wore sky-high red velvet stilettos. Robbie Dobson, father of New Zealand men's player Warren Dobson, wore a woollen tam o' shanter hat and a jersey with a curling stone pattern that his sister-in-law had knitted for him.

The buffet dinner was local lamb and venison. "If you're a meat-eater, you'll have a picnic," the crowd was told. "If you're vegetarian - well, I'm sure you'll find something." A plaque was presented to Naseby for hosting the tournament. Cheryl Smith sang covers. Outside, the rain cleared to reveal the high country and this time, the tussock was dusted with snow.