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Kids who curl
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Kathy Nelson is a former Wisconsin state champion. She gives pointers to young curlers like Alex Rohling. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
Curling clubs say they've had more young folks try the sport since last year's Olympics, but curling doesn't have the same natural youth-appeal as football, basketball or snowboarding. So curling clubs make a point of bringing the game to kids.

Superior, Wisc. — If you follow curling at all, you've heard about the curling club in Superior, Wisconsin. The club has only about 100 members, but teams from Superior have won the world championship three times. And the U.S. just about never wins a world championship.

Wander into the Superior Curling Club on a Monday night, though, and you won't see world champions. You'll see kids learning to curl.

Adult club members are on the ice every Monday to show the kids how to slide a curling stone with the right touch, and how to sweep the ice to guide a stone, and how to choose a strategy. Should you go for points, or use your stone to block the other team from scoring?

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Image Kevin Kroll and Ryan Susens.

The Superior Curling Club has about 50 kids in its junior program. The youngest are in fourth grade. Most of them are boys. Some of them come from families that curl, but many of them don't. Kevin Kroll is one of the more advanced junior curlers. He's 15, and he started curling three years ago when a friend told him he should try it.

"And, I'm like, I guess I'll give it a shot," he says. "And I got hooked on it."

Kevin Kroll's wearing pants large enough for two kids his size, and he has a knit cap pulled down to his eyes.

He went to a curling tournament a week ago with his three teammates, and they won six of seven games.

He says he's good.

"Well, from what other people say, I guess so," he says.

But other kids at school don't get too excited about curling.

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Image Kevin throws a stone

"Hockey is the most popular sport," Kroll says. "And then it's basketball. Curling's probably ranked, like, 10th."

One of Kroll's teammates is Marty Christiansen. He's in ninth grade, too. His parents got him started curling a few years ago.

"I'm probably going to be curling hopefully the rest of my life," he says. "Or as long as I can until college hits me, and I'll see what I can do then."

That's just what Kathy Empie wants to hear. She coordinates the kids' program at the Superior Curling Club. She says kids like Marty and Kevin might drift away from curling during their late teens, but they'll be back.

"They've curled enough years to really get hooked, and probably will curl through adulthood," Empie says. "We have curlers that are in their seventies, eighties, even a curling coach in his nineties."

The curling club's membership is holding steady, according to Empie, but she'd like to see it grow. That's one reason kids get to curl free on Monday nights. And that's why the club invites school groups to curl.

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Image Preparing to throw

"We sponsor field trips all the time," she says. "School districts all over, they'll come down for a field trip and then like the sport, and we'll say, 'We meet on Monday nights if you want to come back.'"

That's exactly what happened with Alex Rohling. He's 10 years old, and he went curling for the first time with a school group in the afternoon. Three hours later, he was back on the ice getting personal instruction from one of the senior curlers.

"What do we call those rocks up front?," Alex's mentor asks him, and he furrows his brow. She answers her own question. "Guards," she says.

"Oh yeah, guards," says Alex.

Alex says he's getting the hang of it.

"Well, I've learned that you can't touch the things you're curling with with the stick, because then you don't get any points," he says. "I know you have to wear, like slidey shoes. One of them has to be a gripper."

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Image Alex the Skip

Alex still looks confused about where to be, and what to do, but he's getting lots of guidance. A young curler on the far end of the ice slides a curling "rock" towards Alex's end of the ice, and Alex stands watching the stone slide.

"Get ready to sweep!" his teacher warns him in a grandmotherly tone, and Alex scurries onto the playing surface and burnishes the ice with his broom.

"Very good," his teacher says with a grin.

The kids leave the ice and take a written test on curling rules and terms, and they get snacks. Alex's grandfather is waiting to give him a ride home. Alex says he'll be back for the next kids' night at the curling club.

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