Skipping stones: Curling Olympian from China playing in Poynette

Betty Wang releases a stone and sends it curling down the ice towards the other end of the Poynette Curling Club. Wang, a Chinese Olympian skip, has been curling in Poynette while attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo taken by Alex Ebert.

Published in the Daily Register 9/21/2010.

POYNETTE – The room was just above a chilling 40 degrees, but the harsh florescent lights of the Poynette Curling Club betrayed Mike Murphy’s nervousness. Sweat was beading on his forehead.

His anxiety was understandable: it isn’t every day you get to curl against an Olympic medalist. That is, unless you’ve been around the Poynette Curling Club over the last month while Chinese Olympic skip Betty Wang has been throwing and sweeping.

Wang, 26, cuts an imposing figure even at 5 feet 4 inches. She threw the final stone that ejected the U.S. women’s team from the Olympics in Vancouver this February. At the time, the Chinese were the reigning world champions, and Wang led them to a bronze.

But on Thursday, Mike Murphy earned his sweat. After getting his jacket (which has a patch for the Arlington Curling Club on one side, and Poynette’s on the other) signed by the Olympian, Murphy and his team threw better than they had ever imagined.Wang and eight other Chinese Olympic athletes attended a special course through the University of Wisconsin this summer as part of an exchange program with Bejing Sports University. The crew of far-east sports ambassadors attended non-degree seminars focused on English and kinesiology, which Wang said can last for hours each day, and challenge the student-athletes to stretch their language skills and learn about nutrition science.

The fluid program is meant to last until mid-December, but various training regimens have broken up the crew. Wang herself will be leaving for Canada in October to participate in curling tournaments, and the classes leave ample time for exercise and exploration.

Much of Wang’s exploration has centered on two locations: downtown Madison and the two ice sheets in Poynette. When she wasn’t curling, she spent time with classmates. She even made it to a college house party and practiced two other classic Wisconsin pastimes: beer pong and flippicup.

“I got the freshman 15,” she said with a beaming smile.

As disarming as her smile is off the ice, Wang stood out from the Poynette curlers with her bright red China Olympic Team jacket and her shrill yells of “faster, faster” and “c’mon guys” when calling on her teammates to sweep her stone into the right spot.

It’s a lifestyle Wang is perfectly used to after eight years of curling for the Chinese government. Wang and her crew normally train year-round in Canada, and even though Wang said there are only a few hundred curlers in China her team has won gold and silver in the Women World’s Curling Championship in the last five years.

Midway through the game last Thursday, Murphy said he couldn’t believe his team was ahead of Wang’s.

“I’m so nervous. I even had to buy a new $20 broom head from (Debbie McCormick),” Murphy said, brandishing his new florescent orange broom. “Debbie provides the broom for revenge.”

Actually, providing the brooms is former U.S. Olympian McCormick’s new job. Outside the Poynette Curling Club she was showing off her new trailer full of curling gear.

McCormick, who has been sponsored by the curling equipment company Goldline for 10 years, decided to become a traveling saleswoman for the company and now offers a one-stop curling shop out of a trailer she hauls to curling events across the Midwest.

“There aren’t a lot of places to go to try stuff on,” McCormick said, pausing and then laughing. “Like I’m the ice cream truck. Ding, Ding, Ding!”

Though she doesn’t like backing up the trailer, she has been “pleasantly surprised” how much fun she’s had selling shoes, jackets and broom heads in between her matches.

Inside, that new broom head was working wonders for Murphy .

“You can write this as the highlight of my (one year) curling career: at the third end we were ahead,” he said.

His teammate, 14-year-old Brittany Falk, said that beating an Olympian feels “pretty awesome.” She added that she “didn’t feel phased” by Wang’s credentials.

A few throws latter, Wang’s team conceded in the seventh end, losing 9-3 and fulfilling Murphy’s dreams. Both teams shook hands went to the club house to gather around a pitcher of Miller Lite and some curling talk.

Wang said that of all the Wisconsin things she’ll miss – Madison’s State Street, cheese curds – she’ll miss the people most.

Although she looked perplexed when the conversation turned toward hunting (she doesn’t know any Chinese hunters), she put in tidbits of curling gossip, and laughed when Falk said she would one day make a two-story curling club complete with a jacuzzi.

After the beer had been drunk and the club was packing up, Wang started to leave and gave one last look at her new friends.

“I just got a little bit comfortable. I don’t want to leave (America),” she said.

Then pointing to the crew of Columbia County curlers, she grinned wide and said, “I want to stay longer; they are so friendly.”

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