When John Morris, a member of Kevin Martin’s world champion curling team, played the Continental Cup in Camrose, Alta., last month, he was forced to take part in one of the less glamorous rites of today’s elite athlete—handing over a urine sample to the drug testers. Random drug tests are becoming commonplace in curling. Morris has been tested three times this season. Martin, the team’s skip, and his second, Marc Kennedy, have each been tested twice. This month, the drug tests are being ramped up even more: new rules state that curlers have to submit to random tests at any time, not just at major competitions.
Curlers juiced on performance-enhancing drugs might seem a bit laughable—traditionally, the only drug abuse in the sport has been Labatt-related. But the strict anti-doping measures are part of the quiet transformation the sport has undergone in recent years. Long gone are the days when beer-bellied curlers threw stones with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Nowadays, the sport is teeming with professional trainers and sports psychologists. The winningest teams train 12 months of the year, building muscle to help them sweep harder and increasing their stamina to play gruelling 10-game tournaments. Believe it or not, curlers are starting to look a lot like actual athletes.
Martin is one of the pioneers of this new athletic brand of curling. He started eight years ago, he says, after noticing the kind of intense workouts Greg Norman applied to the game of golf. Now, when they’re not curling, Team Kevin Martin goes four days a week to the Hockey Impact Training Centre in Edmonton—the same place NHL stars like Dion Phaneuf and Cam Ward work out. “Our win-loss was always around 80 per cent,” says Martin, about his pre-training days. “After our first year of training all summer, we went to 91 per cent win-loss. That’s an incredible increase.” Jennifer Jones and her women’s world champion team also train 12 months of the year and, like a lot of NHLers, practise yoga to help prevent injuries. Curling, says Jones, “has turned it up a notch.”
It used to be that curling was dominated by the 40-plus set. But today’s top teams aren’t just in better shape, they’re stacked with front-end players in their 20s—the positions that do the grunt work of sweeping to affect the speed and path of the stones. Team Martin’s Ben Hebert, one of the best sweepers in the game, is 25 years old. Morris, who is a personal trainer in the off-season, just turned 30. Sweeping puts tremendous stress on a player’s upper body, so strength is critical to winning games. “Good sweeping makes way more shots than people give it credit for,” says Jones. “The harder your front-end can sweep for as long as they can, the better you’ll be.” Team skips, on the other hand, focus more on core body strength and leg strength—for a good solid push out of the hack.
“The game has changed,” says former world champion Connie Laliberte, who is now the high-performance manager with the Manitoba Curling Association. In the ’90s, Laliberte’s team used to train year-round, but “not a lot of teams picked up on that,” she says. The real shift came with the 2002 Olympics, says Scott Arnold, a coach with Canada’s national curling program. They were “a bit of an eye-opening experience for curlers.” The more intensive physical training has caught on at junior levels too, he says.
Top athletes and coaches say it’s unlikely curling will fall victim to a drug scandal. Bulking up may help sweeping, but players have to maintain the “touch” in order to throw—finesse still trumps muscle power, says Martin. But officials are on the lookout for more than muscle-building steroids. The chief concern is over drugs that might help speed the recovery of an injury, and beta-blockers, which can help a player calm down and focus on a shot, says Gerry Peckham, the high-performance director at the Canadian Curling Association. These kinds of drugs have been used in shooting sports like biathalon, which have a similar rhythm to curling—bursts of activity followed by the need for extreme focus.
So far, there’s only been one positive test in curling, in 2005, when Joe Frans was caught with cocaine in his system at the Canadian Brier in Edmonton. In an email to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, he denied doing the drug, but admitted to having “partied hard” at the Brier—something today’s fitness-crazed, competitive curlers might see as a throwback to old school curling.