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Olympic success sends Americans to the sheets

WAYLAND, Mass. --Business is booming at Pete Fenson's pizza parlor in Bemidji, Minn., and at curling clubs around the country where they're basking in the afterglow of his Olympic bronze medal.

Before the torch had even been snuffed in Turin, an estimated 1,000 people attended an open house at the Broomstones Curling Club to discover the roaring game. That's not counting those who drove out to this Boston suburb but turned away when they saw how crowded it was.

Another 1,000 showed up for a series of meet-and-greets in Potomac, Md. About 700 went to a pair in the curling haven of Dallas.

Only eight people went to a meeting of the Rhode Island Curling Club, but that's OK because until Turin there was no Rhode Island Curling Club.

"We had eight people at our founders' circle meeting. But each of us knows other people," said Patrick Beck, a landscape architect who wants to have a table at next month's world championships in Lowell to "put out the word that there's going to be curling in the Ocean State."

Dan Johnson, an officer in the Dallas-Fort Worth Curling Club, said more than 300 first-timers got out on the ice -- "In Dallas!" he wrote breathlessly in an e-mail to the sport's governing body. About 100 expressed an interest in joining, which could double or triple the club's membership.

"Forty to 50 of those want to start playing RIGHT NOW!" Johnson wrote. "Please thank Pete Fenson and the team for us -- WOW!!"

Fenson owns Dave's Pizza restaurants in Bemidji and Brainerd, Minn., keeping the old name when he took over because it was already well-known. But now that he's Bemidji's second-biggest star -- legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan still has him beat -- it might be time to cash in on his fame.

"It's definitely been pretty wild in here," said Chase Jackson, the manager at Dave's in Bemidji. "There's more people coming in, wanting to know how he's doing. We've been getting fan mail sent to him from Virginia, California, Georgia.

"He might hang up some pictures and stuff" to commemorate the United States' first-ever Olympic curling medal, Jackson said. "He hasn't done that yet. He's still trying to get his life back in order."

Less than a week after his third-place finish in Turin, Fenson and teammates Shawn Rojeski, John Shuster and Joe Polo were qualifying for the worlds in Lowell. It's not curling's natural habitat -- think Scots, Scandinavians and the places where they settled -- but the Americans' Olympic success might be changing that.

TV coverage for the curious game with the shouting and sweeping and clattering rocks has increased for three consecutive Winter Games, giving the sport a quadrennial cult status that drowns out the mocking references to shuffleboard, bowling or bocce. And curling clubs around the country are trying to figure out how to keep up with the demand.

"That certainly wasn't a surprise to the curlers," said Pete Mitchell, president of the world championships' organizing committee. "It's probably one of the most natural sports for television. The whole world becomes plate-glass skips. ... And you could curl all year for what a typical ski weekend costs."

In 2002, after curling made a bit of a splash at the Salt Lake City Games, about 450 people turned out for an open house at Broomstones. But the curling season ends in the spring, and the club was unable to carry the newcomers' enthusiasm over to fall.

"We weren't prepared for it," said Sharon Cutter, a member of the Broomstones board. "So we had nothing to do to grab them."

To accommodate the post-Olympic crunch this time, the club scheduled one-night "Learn to Curl" sessions and three-week mini-leagues for newcomers. Even so, it was overwhelmed when 1,000 people showed up on the day of the closing ceremonies.

"In our typical open house before the Olympics we were twisting arms," said Sam Williams, a Broomstones officer and seven-time winner of its club championship. "The challenge now is finding ice time for people."

Broomstones has four curling sheets and 275 adult members and not enough ice time to serve much more than 350. There is also a curling club on Cape Cod and at The Country Club in Brookline -- better known for hosting golf's 1999 Ryder Cup and the 1913 and '88 U.S. Opens.

"Golf takes a while to play and I had four kids," said curling booster Ed Sandford, a former Boston Bruin who scored 106 goals in nine NHL seasons before taking up the sport when he retired in 1956. "Pretty soon you start to make some shots, and once you make some shots you get the bug."

At Broomstones' Learn to Curl doubleheader last week, 56 first-timers got about 45 minutes of instruction before being set free for a two-end game (a regulation match is 10 ends, which are like innings). The players wobbled as they tried to get used to walking on ice wearing a Teflon slider and struggled with the rules of the game.

One man continued to sweep the stone even after it had bounced off the bumper -- like a gutter ball in bowling -- thinking he could still rescue the shot from its errant path. Another twisted the handle when he released the rock like he was trying to get the lid off an old jar of pasta sauce; better form is a gentle turn, with about as much wrist action as an English queen might use to wave to her subjects.

"I slipped a few times but I got better as it went on," said Ed Beaudry, who came with some friends from work. "It's got me hooked a little bit."

Shannon Planck curled in the early session but stuck around the fireside lounge to share drinks with friends and watch the late session on the other side of the glass. Like most of the newcomers, they decided to give the sport a try after watching the Olympics; Planck said she recorded all of the coverage on her TiVo, watching the early ends on double-time before going back to the normal speed for the suspenseful final frame.

"It was strangely serene," Planck said.

Although Planck and her friends tend to try things on a lark -- their last one was trapeze school -- Laura Wood is thinking about joining.

"I thought it was a hoot," said Wood, a librarian at the Harvard Divinity School. "It's kind of too bad that you get the enthusiasm right before the season's over."

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