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Olympic connection highlights Bemidji's long curling tradition

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Bemidji resident Cassie Johnson is the "skip," or leader of the U.S. Women's Curling Team. Johnson and her sister, Jamie, are among five Bemidji curlers participating in the Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy. (Photo Courtesy of U.S. Curling Association)
If there was any doubt about the city of Bemidji's dominance in the winter sport of curling, that doubt has been all but swept away. Over the past two decades, Bemidji has produced more than 20 national championship curling teams.

Four years ago, a pair of Bemidji sisters competed for Olympic gold in Salt Lake City. Now, five Bemidji curlers are participating in the Winter Games in Turin, Italy. Those Bemidji athletes make up half of the U.S. men's and women's curling teams. Curling has long been a way of life for many in Bemidji.

Bemidji, Minn. — Curling has its origins in 16th century Scotland. So it's only appropriate that a pair of bagpipes led a procession honoring Bemidji's Olympic curlers at a rousing sendoff at the Bemidji Curling Club, before they departed for Turin, Italy.

The Bemidji Curling Club has been around longer than the city's famed statues of Paul and Babe. The club was established in the mid-1930s. Its walls are lined with close to 100 banners signifying years of state and national championships.

All that history is not lost on Bemidji's Pete Fenson. Fenson is a third-generation curler, and the "skip" or leader of the men's U.S. Olympic curling team.

"It is amazing," said Fenson. "My opinion is that it just kind of feeds off of itself. Years back, we had guys that kind of set the bar, and growing up we just always were chasing their records and accomplishments, and trying to equal and surpass what they were doing."

By day, Fenson, 38, runs a couple of popular pizza restaurants he owns. But curling is his real passion. Both of his parents were champion curlers. His dad, Bob Fenson, is coach of the men's Olympic team.

It's estimated that 15,000 people curl in the U.S. Nearly half of those live in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Curling has only been an Olympic sport since 1998. Fenson says he's glad the sport is finally getting more attention.

"We've done this for so long without any recognition, it was always completely under the radar," Fenson said. "This is kind of fun. It's different for us. And I told the guys last year when we won the nationals, I said just enjoy the whole journey and try to have as much fun as possible in chasing our dream."

Curling is one of those sports you can start as a kid and play well into old age. Learning the strategy of the game takes years, but the basics are fairly simple.

Curling is played on a sheet of ice 146 feet long by 15 feet wide. Players gently glide 42-pound stones down the ice toward a target. The stones are made of smooth, polished granite with a handle on top.

Teammates sweep the ice with brooms to make the stones go farther. The team with stones closest to the center of the target, wins.

Cassie Johnson, 24, of Bemidji, heads up the U.S. women's team. Her sister Jamie, a year older, is on the team, too. Cassie and Jamie are fourth-generation curlers. They were 5 and 6 years old when they started playing the game. They learned from their parents, who were both national champions.

Jamie Johnson says curling has always been a part of their lives.

"My earliest memory would be just throwing rocks with my sister at juniorspiels, probably when I was like 11 or 10 years old," said Johnson. "And I didn't quite have the form down, the right delivery. But it just takes a lot of practice. And now that we've practiced so much and made it to the Olympics, it's a dream come true."

The Johnson sisters started getting competitive in their teens. Cassie says Bemidji was a great place to grow as a player.

"We had a great junior program when I was growing up," Cassie Johnson said. "And that's where a lot of the people who are competitive curlers now came from. People like my sister and I, Pete, and a bunch of other kids. And we just kind of grew up curling. It's a lot of family traditions, too."

That family tradition in Bemidji goes back generations -- families like the Schmitts. They're a mainstay in local curling tournaments, or bonspiels, as they're called. Charlie Schmitt, 69, has been curling more than half his life. A few years ago, Schmitt's granddaughter competed in a world championship.

"Next year, one of these bonspiels might have a four-generation team in there," Schmitt said. "The one is a little small yet, but we're going to try it."

A few feet away, Max Hirt, 73, stands against a long row of glass windows. He's looking out onto the club's ice sheet, split into six curling lanes. Hirt's parents started curling in the late 1930s. He got into the game a few years later, and has been playing ever since.

Hirt says the Olympics are placing the curling spotlight squarely on Bemidji. He says that's good for the town and good for the game.

"It means a lot," said Hirt. "Good publicity, one thing. And it means that everybody in the world is going to be watching them now."

A strong high school curling program is one reason why curling remains so popular in Bemidji. It means you don't have to come from a curling family to get into the game. Hundreds of kids learn it each year in a Bemidji High School class that's taught at the curling club.

On a recent day, about 50 kids are out on the ice, many for the first time. Curling instructor Jeff Nelson says he doesn't think there are any other high schools in the country that offer a full semester curling class.

"It's a wonderful opportunity," said Nelson. "The kids really enjoy it."

Nelson says the high school class is a nice complement to the well-established junior and adult curling leagues at the club. He says many of his students continue on to play in the leagues. Nelson says he's sure some of them will go on to national competition.

"It does expose the kids, but to go to that level they need to have a lot of commitment along the way," said Nelson. "And I'm sure there are some kids with that aptitude to be Olympic curlers in here, and I try and tell them that. But they've got to take the extra step it takes to get to that level."

High School senior Cody Rohde says he got interested in curling because some of his buddies took the class. Rohde says he's even more interested in the game now that people from his hometown are competing in the Olympics.

"I think it's awesome," said Rohde. "A smaller town standing out nationwide. It's nice to be known, I guess."

The U.S. Olympic curling teams will compete against nine other nations when curling competition gets underway on Monday. The United States has yet to win an Olympic medal in curling.

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