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Curling: a Gift for a One-Armed Curler

Kathleen Berry

January 23, 2022


In 1947, before the vaccine was available, I contracted polio at age 4. It left the left side of my body limp but especially my left arm and back. It was to mark my life to this very day. But no pity required. With a supportive community, great family and friends, I was able to participate in every aspect of life especially sports. Especially curling.

In 1958, Judy S. and I skipped high school and went to the Beaver Curling Club in Moncton so Judy could practice some shots. I watched her from behind the glass with a certain amount of envy. The club was empty so we knew we wouldn’t have to worry about getting caught. Or so we thought. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder, “Why aren’t you out there throwing rocks?” My immediate reaction was – we’ve been caught. It was, however, a man swathed in the typical white curling sweater of the time even donning the curling beret. I stumbled on my words to find a reasonable excuse why we weren’t in school. “I ah, we ah….. she ah… I only have one arm!” Rarely, if ever, did I use my physical condition as an excuse but, to protect us from the arrows and slings of expulsion from school, that was the quickest rationale for the moment.

The stately man was even quicker with a comeback. “That’s ok. Follow me and we’ll see if we can do something to get you curling like your friend.” When people talk about those ‘aha’ moments, many might be sceptical. I was. Out on the ice, he demonstrated the way to use the broom for balance, rock momentum forward, swing back, push off, move the end of the handle away from your body for an ‘out’turn, into body for an ‘in’turn’. “Ah Sir, I can’t hold a broom.” “Mmmmm,” he pondered. “Try it without the broom.” In spite of having a limp left arm, circumstances provided me with an amazingly strong right arm. With the delivery ritual in place, I pushed the rock forward, swung it back, pushed off from the hack, slid on my knee for balance, tried an in-turn and let go of the rock. That day marked the official beginning of the one-armed curler. Rock after rock went down that sheet of ice to the cheers of Judy and some unknown wonderfully smart and sensitive man although I also heard the cheers of thousands as if I were now a famous curler. The man said he was from ‘out west’. To this day, I feel it was either Ken Watson or one of the Richardsons. Don’t burst my bubble and tell me differently.

With the success of that day and Judy as my witness, I was asked to join a high school curling team. The Beausejour Curling Club had just been built (1957) so Moncton High School was given the privilege of ice time after school and some weekends. In addition to the curling, it was a great place to socialize with friends and meet new friends. I met my first love there as did many high schoolers. Because I was seen as a ‘good’ curler, he, unlike many others, didn’t see me as a cripple. In fact, he asked me to join his mixed curling team. I couldn’t hold a broom but I sure could sweep. My curling equipment included the usual: corn broom, gloves, the racoon hat with collected pins, the removable slider and used curling shoes. But for this one-armed curler extra included; for the knee that balances me, a towel taped to the left knee and two towels with a sponge to wrap around my neck so I wouldn’t knock myself out when the broom handle hit. And the first love, he went on to the high school bonspiel in Saskatchewan. Why he even asked me to the high school dances. Thanks again to curling, I was able to experience ‘normal’ as was categorized in those times.

Curling also saved Judy and me from death. Another club that we belonged to was the YMCA. It was Hi-Y clubs that held various activities such as fund raising and dances. One activity in particular was a skating and toboggan party held at Jone’s Lake. Instead of going, Judy and I, because our parents were members, went to the Beaver Curling Club to practice throwing some rocks. We were walking home from the practice when a car pulled up in front of my house. It was two couples from Hi-Y on their way to the party at the end of my street. They asked us to hop in the car and go to the party. My mother just happened to be at the door of my house peering, more like glaring, a great big NO! – ‘your curfew was at 9 – it’s now 9:15’. I intuitively heard her unspoken message and could read the eyes and the furled lip. “Sorry guys, I can’t go,” I whispered embarrassingly so they wouldn’t laugh at me as a chicken. If I didn’t go, Judy said she didn’t want to either. The next morning, CKCW reported that four teenagers were drowned at Jone’s Lake the night before. They had driven down to join a Hi-Y party but the car slid down the hill and into the lake. Thank heavens for curling and curfews and mothers.

Since 1960, and for different reasons, I moved from Moncton to Pointe Claire, Vancouver, Montreal, a isolated radar station at Mount Apica, Quebec to Regina to Toronto to London Ontario, Edmonton, Lethbridge, back to London, Ontario, Fredericton, New Brunswick and now settled in Sackville, N.B.. For purposes of father’s transfers, university studies, jobs and other reasons, I felt like a gypsy with no roots. But there was one place that was home – the curling rink. In spite of struggling to get a job, earn money to support my studies and others’ perception of a ‘one-arm’ person can’t do much, I was able to keep curling in most of those varied locations. And curling afforded me friends, social activities, playing vice and skip, weekend bonspiels, ice level seats broadcasting at Silver Broom (yes, Kerri Burtenyk ) and volunteering at World Curling events (yes, Kevin Martin that one!). Watch Colleen Jones (I think Lethbridge) and Brad G. in Halifax with my one of favourite sports broadcasters with a boulevard in Moncton that bears his name – dare I speak his name? yes – Russ Howard.

So full circle now. 2022. Covid has created a need for vaccines, people are living in conditions of isolation and limited activities including cancelation of curling from the local to the national and international levels. Reports of mental, physical, and social health issues appear daily. Even if you are a couch curler, there is limited to nil TV coverage. On the one hand, Canadians hold their breath for Team Jones, Team Gushue, Team Morris and Holman, and the Paralympic Teams with anticipatory anxiety that Beijing doesn’t cancel. On the other hand, we hope that our teams stay safe and healthy and they don’t have to cancel. For selfish reasons, we state our hope. In these times, I need, as do many, to continue our love for curling even if it’s only virtual.

But the circle is not complete. When the Covid threats and issues are reduced and some day diminished, how does curling play an important part in the recovery? There are many arts and sports that governments, communities and other institutions can support on the road to inclusion, diversity and social justice in post Covid times. Money, training programs, volunteers, space and time to curling clubs: school and university curling as part of a physical education curriculum: building curling rinks, not just hockey rinks, on Indigenous Nations, buses with curling rocks and rings painted on the side offered for ‘kids’ to travel from location to location just like the millions paid for equipment, rinks and buses on hockey. Build so ‘kids’ living in conditions of poverty have an opportunity to experience curling. Not just in Western provinces but across the Canadian landscape. Build with solar panels and wind power, insulate with straw and other climate friendly materials. Yes, that is big thinking but why not?

If I were to win a trip for 4 to a curling event like Tim Horton’s Briar or The Scotties, I’d give my tickets to 2 adults and 2 children that couldn’t afford the cost to experience the gifts that curling has given me. I hope the winners of this contest do the same.

Kathy S. Berry