A (b)room of their own: On curling in Omaha, past and present - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, February 2, 2014 at 5:30 pm / Updated at 11:50 pm
A (b)room of their own: On curling in Omaha, past and present
HAMMER TIME
Rules: The ultimate objective is to get your team's stone closer to the center of a target (some 150 feet of ice away) than the opposing team. Do this over the course of eight to 10 “ends,” and your team wins the game.

Players: Each team has four role players (lead, second, third and skip). The skip sets strategy, calls shots and throws the final two stones, the latter of which is referred to as “the hammer.” It is important.

What you need: Curling enthusiasts like to say it's a sport most anyone can play. But you do need specially prepared ice, stones and brooms. The Aksarben Curling Club offers all of that.

Info: Learn more at curlaksarben.org.

See if you recognize yourself in this scenario.

It happens every four years around the Winter Olympics, when you've started to get over the word “luge” and grown more invested in the dramatics of figure skating than you thought possible.

Just about then you catch a glimpse of curling, the sport from up north, yeah, with its oblong slab of handled granite and trousered competitors sweeping ice with specialized brooms, and you think to yourself: Huh.

Then what you might reasonably ask next is: “I wonder if that happens in Nebraska? Do people in Omaha curl?” To which the answer would be an emphatic yes.

And then you might wonder:

“Could that take off here? Could that be a thing?” Oh, you betcha.

These days, curling in Omaha happens during a weekly five-hour window. Close to 100 members of the Aksarben Curling Club show up each Sunday evening at Moylan Iceplex in Tranquility Park, where one of two ice rinks is given over to the sport.

Such was the case two weeks ago. Curlers of various ages slid stones along narrow tracks of ice, or “sheets,” including a collegiate club team made up of University of Nebraska-Lincoln students wearing red track jackets. At any given time, the rink contained four games, each separated by faintly perceptible lines in the ice.

Naturally, the coming Winter Olympics in Sochi (curling starts Feb. 10) had players excited. But the subject that truly animated those assembled was “dedicated ice.”

Google “dedicated ice” and what you'll find is a term nearly exclusive to curling. It means a facility catered to curling, as opposed to sharing ice time with hockey or public skating.

For Aksarben club members, dedicated ice represents an opportunity to grow the sport in Omaha. The facility itself could be modest — an insulated warehouse, really, with an ice cooling system, restrooms and maybe a capacity to pour beer. A membership base of 200 and some sweat equity could get them there, with the right piece of land. It would mean having a venue available to curling seven days a week, serving everyone from casual curlers to hard-core stone-throwers. It would create an environment in which national champions are born and Olympic hopes take flight.

If that sounds far-fetched, it isn't.

Local curlers aren't dreaming when they talk about the possibilities of dedicated ice. They're talking about something that already happened.

The Aksarben Curling Club was founded in the 1950s and took residence for nearly half a century on the grounds of the old Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack and coliseum, settling in the livestock arena. The club had two 14-feet-wide sheets of ice put to use just about every day of the week between Halloween and St. Patrick's Day. At its peak, the club had well over 200 members. There was a men's league, a women's league, a mixed league and a junior curlers program divided into two age groups.

“The curling club was kind of like an extended family,” said the Rev. Andrew Roza, a Columbus, Neb., Catholic priest who grew up curling in Omaha. “We saw them all the time. During the wintertime, they became your uncles and your aunts and your brothers and sisters.”

Couples curled with their friends and had children who learned how to curl with each other, and those children, it turns out, became pretty good at curling.

They traveled to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba, Canada, for tournaments, or “bonspiels.” From 1998 to 2001, a team led by Roza won the junior national championship (under 21 years of age) three times. They went on to compete at world championships in Thunder Bay, Canada; Östersund, Sweden; and Ogden, Utah. They won bronze medals on two of those occasions.

“We ended up with some of the best junior curlers in the nation,” said Graham Mitenko, a longtime Omahan by way of Winnipeg, Canada. “A small club in Omaha, Neb., that no one has ever heard of.”

Some of the curlers they beat went on to win at the Olympics, illustrating the narrow gap between established club curling and curling on the world's biggest stage.

It was conceivable, local curlers say, that the old club might have produced Olympiads, too. One squad even competed at the U.S. trials for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

But high-level competition was only part of it. Longtime club members cite the family atmosphere that existed, the camaraderie, the pride of having a place.

And then it was all swept away.

When the Ak-Sar-Ben arena, owned and operated for years by Douglas County, was shuttered in 2001 and later torn down, the club's curling rink went with it.

It hasn't been the same since. The club first relocated to the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs, sharing ice with other activities and losing members along the way. It's since moved to the Moylan Iceplex. The five-hour-per-week window is a far cry from the old days, club president Doug Jaixen said, “but we're just glad we're out here.”

More than a decade later, a bitterness that existed at the time the old arena closed has softened into a nostalgia for what was and could have been. One three-time junior champion called Ak-Sar-Ben's closure “the end of my childhood.”

“It was unfortunate,” Mitenko said. “You learn a lesson. Own the land.”

Today, Mitenko teaches finance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His office is in the newish Mammel Hall on the school's newish south campus on the old Ak-Sar-Ben grounds. By Mitenko's estimate, that puts his chair about two stories above the old curling club rink, a theory he shared enthusiastically if a bit wistfully. Tacked to his office door was a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “Curlers: They're Not So Fat Anymore.”

“For a city that's just kind of on the edge of where curling is almost not heard of, we did amazing things with dedicated ice,” he said.

The Olympics, as always, offer hope for a return to the glory days of Omaha curling. Every four years, the sport draws international attention. The Aksarben club sees it as an opportunity to recruit. In 2010, it welcomed guests to an open house in conjunction with the Vancouver games. Several hundred people showed up. Some of them kept with the sport, becoming new members.

Something else happened along the way. The kids in the red track suits started showing up, led by their UNL club sponsor, Nancy Myers, who grew up curling in Schenectady, N.Y. Every Sunday, a dozen students carpool to Omaha for their once-a-week chance to curl.

The team president is a junior economics major named Cameron Binder, who's actually teaching a class on curling at UNL this semester. Close to 20 students are enrolled.

Binder grew up outside Milwaukee, where curling isn't exactly commonplace but “everyone knows a curler.” Nowadays, he considers himself a Nebraskan.

“I take pride in it,” he said. “Omaha is officially my home club” to the United States Curling Association.

He wasn't around in the old days, but he hears the stories — not just from the Omahans, but up north, when the student club travels to bonspiels in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Binder meets curlers who remember the Aksarben club in its heyday.

“Dedicated ice would mean a lot to this state,” Binder said. “It may not be reasonable to think it could happen soon, but every person who picks up the game gets us closer to reaching that goal. …

“I hope to be around this state for as long as I can, and as long as I'm here, I will do everything I can to keep the sport growing here. The hard part is getting them on the ice. After that, it's hard to get them off.”

Contact the writer: Casey Logan

casey.logan@owh.com    |   402-444-1056    |  

Casey's a GA features reporter looking for good stories to tell about interesting people.

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