Curled Up In The Cold

Posted on Mar 1, 2009 :: Down Time
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Jim O'Neill of prepares to release the stone.

It was a “toasty” 30 degrees or thereabouts inside the Appleton Curling Club one January night as the thermometer outside hovered around zero. Let’s not go so far as to call it warm inside the building, but the temperature contrast with the world outside was as stark as the winter landscape. On the 9,000-square-foot surface of pebbled ice, eight teams of guys varying widely in age and occupation scurried back and forth across the four marked sheets as they readied for the first games.

If you don’t know anything about curling, the best analogy might be to a game of shuffleboard played on ice, but make no mistake – curling is a full-scale Olympic sport that requires considerable strategy, skill, agility and stamina, especially for the sweepers who help guide the stone down the ice and into position.

For Olympic curlers, the sport is world-class competition. It’s less so for most of these recreational athletes (one exception is Menasha’s Bill Todhunter, who has competed in the national and world championships), but the local curlers take their sport seriously.

“It’s a lifetime sport that’s about competition, but it also has a strong social component,” says Jim O’Neill, sales manager for, an Appleton-based provider of e-commerce shopping cart technology. O’Neill has been curling for about 40 years, since his parents dragged him to the Tri-City Curling Club in Wisconsin Rapids.

“At first, I’d be telling them I didn’t want to go,” says O’Neill, “but I eventually took to it and 40 years later, here I am.”

O’Neill skips (captains) one of the club’s teams. The friendly competition and social opportunity are big draws for most curlers, he says, but they also like the sportsmanship aspect. Curling tradition dictates that every game is preceded and followed by handshakes all around, and you’re not going to hear any woofing or trash-talking on these curling sheets.

The O’Neill team’s opponent, skipped by Steve Heimrl, jumped off to a lead, thanks to several well-placed shots. Each was greeted with congratulations by O’Neill and his teammates. When O’Neill’s team surged to a one-point lead midway through the game, Heimrl and his squad returned the gesture.

Later, Heimrl and his teammates jumped back into the lead, leaving O’Neill with one last shot to tie it on the final throw, needing to knock out two of his opponents’ stones and leave his own in scoring position. It was not to be.

“There were really quite a few good shots made in the game,” O’Neill says. “Sometimes you have a game where there are a few ‘Plan B’ shots, where the stone doesn’t do exactly what you planned, but it works anyway. In this game, there really were a lot of shots made as they were called.”

For a sport that’s been around for more than 400 years, curling is enjoying a resurgence, probably due in part to exposure in the Olympics.

“We’ve been gaining members, and the Olympics probably has something to do with that,” O’Neill says, “but we also do open houses and we rent the club out a few times each year for corporate events like team-building, so that exposes a few more people to the sport. But most of the people here got into it because they knew someone who was already a member.”

In the end, O’Neill said, the sport is a perfect counterpoint to the competitiveness of business life.

“The sport is competitive, but after the game is over, you all head downstairs to the clubhouse to talk about it and maybe enjoy a beverage. I think that’s a big part of what people like about it.”