It’s about what you give back and how you change and help other people to become their best selves. I just want to give to others what they have to me.
Bay Area curler Gabrielle Coleman stands out in a sport that doesn’t.
Most Tuesday nights, Gabrielle Coleman can be found inside Stanley’s Sports Bar at Sharks Ice in downtown San Jose. She doesn’t drink, she’s not an employee, and she says she’s never been a great skater either. She’s not there for the hockey. She’s there for curling.
Once a week from 9:30pm to 11:30pm, Coleman and 40 or so other curlers join up at Sharks Ice for a curling league and a good time. Coleman, however, has aspirations that many of her co-competitors do not. The 33-year-old is such a good curler that she’s competed at the national level, even reaching the US Olympic trials in 2009.
Yes, her sport is curling, that shuffleboard-like ice sport that draws a lot of attention every four years when the Winter Olympics come around. But most of the time, it is forgotten here in the United States. There are a little more than 16,000 curlers across the country on record. Canada, regularly the favorite to win gold at the Olympics, has approximately 1.3 million by comparison, despite a population that is little more than a 10th of the size of the United States’.
Coleman and her coach Barry Ivy are part of one of the largest clubs in California, the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club. Established in 1958, their mission, along with the rest of the United States’ curling community, is to help the sport grow. Recently, it’s worked. Participation has grown by more than 50 percent since 2002, with an even more impressive 16 percent jump from 2010 to 2011.
For Coleman, it isn’t just the country’s reputation she’s trying to improve, but her specific region’s. Ivy calls the West Coast “the boonies of the curling world,” and while this statement is in jest, it’s not far from the truth. There are very few competitive curlers from the country’s Pacific coast. In fact, just one of the 10 teams at the US Olympic trials in 2009 was based west of Bismarck, North Dakota. Most are located in the country’s longtime curling hubs like Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Coleman, a Mountain View native, was a part of that sole western team, based in Seattle, Washington. She was also the lone competitor—of 42 total—who resides in California. It’s that obstacle that makes her curling commitment so much more demanding.
Paying out of her own pocket, she flies to Seattle or Vancouver almost every weekend from August to March for training. During competitions, she has to take time away from her work at NBC, which she credits as being not only accepting and understanding of her love for curling but “enormously supportive.” She doesn’t mind the commitment though and finds the bright side to her travels. “It’s like a mini-vacation every week.”
Other curlers live nearer to facilities dedicated to curling, and those among the highest ranked teams receive funding from the US Olympic Committee. Coleman and her teammates do not. As Ivy puts it, “People who play at a dedicated facility can go down and throw rocks at lunchtime for an hour.” The lack of practice time Coleman can get during the week presents a real challenge that other curlers, even in Seattle, don’t always face.
But while they have their advantages, Coach Ivy believes Coleman has some of her own. “If the rest of the United States curling world at the elite level was as committed as Gabrielle, we would be winning Olympics,” Ivy says.
The competition hasn’t always been that strong. Just seven years ago, Coleman attended her first curling event, just hoping to have a fun experience. Challenged by her brother that she couldn’t make nationals, she decided it was on. Within a year, she was competing at the women’s club nationals, who had trouble fielding enough teams for their 10-team tournament. That year, only seven teams had signed up to compete. This year, there are 18 teams vying for those 10 spots.
The US Olympic trials have also grown more competitive in recent years. The field of 10 from 2009 has been trimmed to just four for the upcoming 2013 trials. For Coleman, this means getting back will be harder than ever. In 2009, her team finished eighth, which wouldn’t be good enough to qualify this time around. Coleman knows her team has to win at nationals to qualify, since two teams have already qualified and the national governing body chooses the fourth.
She gives her team an outside chance at coming out with the win if they “have a good week.” Ivy is especially high on their chances. “Don’t let her fool you,” he says. “This is definitely doable for Gabrielle.”
While the increase in the sport’s popularity has made her goals more difficult, the NBC Bay Area morning show director is ecstatic to see so many new curlers, not only at her own club but around the country. As a member of the board for SFBACC, growing the curling community is important to her. She’s trying to help the club secure ice that’s dedicated to curling for the first time in 20 years, rather than having to share ice time with hockey players and recreational skaters.
Just like the sport as a whole, the Princeton grad has come a long way since 2006. She recalls her first national competition as something of a nightmare for Ivy, who tried to lead four curlers with about three years of combined experience. “I was so lost,” Coleman says. “In my first game, I had to ask my opponent when to start.”
Since then, she’s gone on to write an e-book on her experiences, directed at helping other beginning curlers. Break Through Beginner Curling details everything from curling basics to the confusing nature of large national competitions.
At Sharks Ice, it’s clear how much interest Coleman has in teaching others, taking time out to encourage a teenage girl who was just watching to give it a try. But while there is an inclination to teach, she also hopes to curl competitively for a long time.
The sport keeps drawing her back because, no matter how good she gets, she feels there will always be a new challenge. “Everybody who’s any good can throw the stone accurately,” she says. “It’s the complexity and the strategy of the shots at the higher levels that keep getting tougher.”
The unity and bond of a team is another aspect she loves. For casual observers, the team aspect might not be as obvious on TV as it is to those who know the game. “From the instant I release the shot, me and my teammates are communicating,” Coleman emphasizes. “It’s like any other team sport. We can’t win unless we’re all on the same page.”
On the ice, that communication is unmistakable. The sweeping of the ice, one of the most unusual aspects of the sport, relies on it. If their timing on when to speed up or slow down the stone is off just a little bit, the shot could end very differently.
Whether her team wins or not, Coleman hopes she and her teammates can be good examples of the increasing geographical diversity of the game in the United States. She also recognizes that her personal success can help grow the sport on the West Coast, especially in California.
“For me to win, for us to win, it would be a big deal,” she says. Both Coleman and Ivy believe that that kind of statement at nationals could lead to big improvements in not only her own curling environment but the West Coast overall. It would go a long way towards helping to find the dedicated curling ice SFBACC is still looking for.
From experience, Ivy knows that a lot of clubs don’t go to the lengths that SFBACC does. They require lessons for those wanting to join any of the club’s leagues, and Ivy knows they lose some curlers because of it. But he and Coleman both have a strong interest in passing the culture of curling on, and they want to do it the right way. “A lot of clubs will say ‘wing it’ and send you out on your own,” Ivy says. “We want to teach.”
Coleman remembers going to those training sessions and finding much more help than she thought she would. Though it was swarmed with close to 200 people, she said important members came up to her encouraging her to stay on because of the lack of women in curling. Ivy was one of those early tutors that kept her confidence and interest high, even if it was her brother’s challenge that made it stick.
With some of the founders of the club having moved on, Coleman calls Ivy the “resident expert” and lists him as her greatest inspiration on her USCA profile. She wants to give back, just like he has to her. “Even though it is about trying to be the best curler you can be and winning medals, it’s not really about that,” she says. “It’s about what you give back and how you change and help other people to become their best selves. I just want to give to others what they have to me.”
[Editor’s note: As of 2018, the newly formed Silicon Valley Curling Club has stepped in to serve the South Bay in San Jose and Fremont.]
Written by Ryan Brown
Photography by Scott MacDonald
Article originally appeared in Issue 5.2 “Invent”