Winter Olympics: Growth of curling in western Wisconsin

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- Four new sports will debut during the Winter Olympics. One of those is mixed doubles curling.

While this will be the first time the world watches mixed doubles, the addition is no surprise to avid curlers.

The sport continues to grow in popularity, especially in western Wisconsin.

Olympic qualifying for curling just wrapped up a few weeks ago.

The team representing America in mixed doubles is a brother and a sister from Wisconsin.

It got us wondering, how big is curling in the state?

The answer can be found on the ice in the Chippewa Valley.

If it's winter, the sound of stones sliding on ice fills the Eau Claire Curling Club.

"We're not weather dependent. We don't need snow, we don't need certain temperatures, it's never too cold.," said Eau Claire Curling Club Manager Jeff Thompson.

The Olympics may broadcast curling every four years, but locally, the sport doesn't take three years off.

"It's a mental game just as much as a physical game," said Jenna Burchesky.

This competition is addicting, and it's bringing more people to the ice.
"When I joined the club 15 years ago, we had slightly more than 70 members. Now, we have 250, so the growth has been tremendous," said Thompson.

Eau Claire Curling Club Manager Jeff Thompson has witnessed the rise of curling first hand. So has club member and former curling Olympian, Mike Peplinski.

"In '98, zero games were televised, but when NBC took over people started to watch and they really liked the game," said Peplinski.

20 years ago, Peplinski competed against the world's best. Two decades later, he spends his winters mentoring the next generation of curlers.

"They love the game. There's always the worry of injury, but now people come out and they're able to push the rock around and see that when two, 40 pound rocks hit each other, It's a cool thing," he said.

Make no mistake, just because Mike's new teammates might be younger, the curling talent in western Wisconsin is for real.

"I've been playing for about 15 years. A lot in Canada. A lot in the U.S.. Recently, we've been to South Korea and China," said Jenna Burchesky.

Jenna is among the nation's top female curlers. She got her start out east.

"Moving to Wisconsin took my curling to the next level. I'm in Minnesota a lot, I'm on the ice here all the time and my team has migrated to the area," she said.

Jenna has big dreams.

"I just want to get to the Olympics some day," said Burchesky.

Just like fellow Eau Claire curler, 14-year-old Isaac Bernier.

"I started curling when I was 7," said Bernier.

Isaac may be 10, 20, 30 or 40 years younger than his opponents, but when the rock's in your hands, age is just a number.

"It's kind of fun because it's like oh, he's younger than me, but his team beat me," said Bernier.

With curling increasing in popularity and the sport attracting more young athletes, the Chippewa Valley has become a target for curlers.

"In Eau Claire, we have hosted a national championship event almost yearly. This year we happen to have two," said Thompson.

Curling is here to stay, and western Wisconsin is right in the middle of it.

Jenna Burchesky just won the Junior National Championship with her team.

She'll now take on the best juniors in the world.



 
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