Playing against the traditional team

Nov. 11, 2008, midnight | By Rebecca Guterman | 13 years, 6 months ago

Blair students go against the tide and dedicate themselves to unusual athletics

A polished 42-pound rock rests on the ice, waiting to be slid 146 feet toward a circular target called "the house." "Sweepers" equipped with long brushes stand in wait, prepared to clear bumps on the ice that might slow the rock's momentum. Junior Gilad Kempenich pushes off the ice to gain speed and gently releases the rock, spurring the sweepers to action.

To onlookers, the sport of curling may seem like a bizarre exercise in coordination, as teams of four partake in what resembles shuffleboard on skates. But for Kempenich, curling is something more - an intriguing alternative to traditional sports. As he joins his teammates on the ice, he feels this is where he belongs.

There are 23 college-level sports recognized by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and most have established competitive programs at Blair. For the few that fall out of the ordinary - including curling and rowing - popularity has been gradually increasing as the result of amplified media attention and a push to diversify the national sports scene, according to Richard Warner of the Potomac Curling Club and Cindy Cole of the Washington Rowing School. For several Blazers, the socially engaging atmosphere of these activities, along with a desire for fresh types of exercise, motivates their pursuit of alternative athletics.

Plunging into the unknown
Before high school, junior Wylie Conlon's rowing experience was limited to a machine on his parents' porch. Then in his freshman year, Conlon's mom, Eva Sullivan, encouraged him to try the sport more seriously because she had loved and played it since college. It has been Conlon's passion ever since. For his first couple years, Conlon practiced with the Walter Johnson team but was barred from competitions because he attended Blair. Now, thanks to the efforts of Sullivan and a few other Blair students and parents, Blair has its own Crew Club, which practices in the Anacostia River through a Learn-to-Row program in Maryland.

Kempenich's introduction to curling was left much more to chance. He noticed the sport on television during the 2002 Winter Olympics and then heard about an open house at the Potomac Curling Club in Laurel. Unsure of what to expect, the open house attendees watched a video about the basics of curling and prepared to take the ice. Kempenich says he put Teflon tape on his shoes to decrease ice friction and then jumped into learning the fundamentals of throwing rocks and sweeping surfaces. He was immediately taken with the sport's uniqueness, and six years later, Kempenich is one of only two known curlers at Blair.

Work it out
Sophomore Josie Krogh cycled through many sports before finding her niche with rowing. Now that she has settled into the sport, she hopes to participate in college for enjoyment and for her physical health. "It's a fun way for me to keep in shape," she says. Krogh especially likes the tranquility of the water, and the strength building she experiences. "You don't really have to move," she says. "You just use your muscles. You can feel yourself working out."

Curling, too, requires physical mastery of a few skills that separate the good curlers from the great according to Kempenich. He says that he himself has come a long way with throwing and sweeping since his first open house, when he stepped onto the ice as an amateur. While the particulars of the sport can be difficult to master, he says, he has managed to keep up with his uncommon hobby - and join a welcoming community of athletes along the way.

A sense of belonging
Freshman Becky Vanarsdall, a fellow curler, describes the sport as above all a social pastime. She explains that during league games, players devote a lot of time to discussion and strategizing, ranging from aggressive to defensive approaches. In fact, while games themselves might only last for 30 minutes, the socializing between two teams can go on for hours. Vanarsdall says that curling's community-based atmosphere has her coming back season after season. "It is a really tightly knit community," she says. "You get to meet a lot of people you would never [otherwise] meet."

The same can be said for rowing, according to sophomore Taylor Tingle, who just picked up the sport this year. She says that because rowing demands constant coordination and communication while in the water, a sense of camaraderie develops outside of it. "We're all learning together," she says. "It's hard work, but it's rewarding."

Tingle hopes to continue reaping those rewards, still excited about the sport that drew her in from the beginning. Remembering her first encounter with rowing, she says, "I never experienced anything like it."

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Rebecca Guterman. Rebecca Guterman loves being on Silver Chips! In what little spare time she has left over, she loves to play the piano, dance really badly, and listen to music. Above all, seeing and talking to friends 24/7 is a must. Even though most of her … More »

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