Curling anyone? The winter sport often described as “shuffleboard on ice” still gets pegged as a Canadian import. In Husker-hungry Nebraska, the broom-swept sport remains something of an oddity.
That’s about to change.
The 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Curling sweep into Omaha Nov. 10-18 at the 7,800-seat Baxter Arena. Curling enthusiasts from all over the country will join the uninitiated in viewing a competition to determine which American teams will vie for curling gold at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Why Omaha? Competitive curlers like Steve Jaixen represent part of the answer.
“Not many people know that Omaha has a very active curling club,” says Jaixen (pronounced Jackson), an Omaha native who became a local fixture of the sport at a young age. “My mom and dad both played at the Aksarben Curling Club.
People remember holding me at the rink as a baby. My entire family has played at some point,” he says.
“We had our own building until 2000 in the old Aksarben Fairgrounds,” explains Steve Taylor, current president of the 59-year-old club. “We had a barn that we’d use every winter. Then, in the summer, the city used it as a pig barn during the fair. So the club was kind of born in a barn.”
Jaixen, 38, played in that pig barn growing up and learned to love this game requiring both skill and athleticism.
While on the juniors team of the Aksarben club, they won at nationals four years running in the late ’90s. The team traveled to Sweden one year to compete in the World Junior Championships, where they lost to Switzerland in the semifinals. He now heads the juniors program at the local curling club.
“To me, curling is more like golf,” Jaixen says. “You’re aiming for a target that’s in the distance, and it takes precision and a perfect touch.”
It also takes a lot of squatting, crouching, bending, sliding, sweeping, and overall flexibility to propel and rotate a 42-pound circular granite rock across a sheet of ice. Two teams—each with four members— compete to get their rock closest to the “button,” or the middle of the target area (also known as the “house”). A player can make the rock “curl” (i.e., turn) more or less as it slides down the sheet.
The brooms create friction that heats up the ice a little bit, enabling the rock to glide farther and straighter.
“One of the things I love about curling is the sportsmanship,” says Jaixen, a father of four who works for a financial company. “Touching the stone with a broom is a violation, but it’s up to the sweeper to be honest and say, ‘Yea, I burned it.’”
Since the U.S. Olympic Trials announcement, coupled with the recent taping by NBC Sports Network of “Curling Night in America” at Baxter Arena, interest in curling has spiked in Omaha. Steve Taylor expects membership at Aksarben Curling Club, which now calls Baxter Arena home, to reach 240 this season.
Teams from the University of Nebraska system (UNL, UNO, and UNMC), Wayne State College, and Creighton University play under the Aksarben Curling Club umbrella.
Who knows? Maybe curling terms like “bonspiel,” “hack,” “slider foot,” “broom stacking,” “pebble,” and “skip” will become part of Nebraska’s sports vocabulary after all.
Visit curlaksarben.com to learn more about the Aksarben Curling Club.
This article was printed in the November/December edition of Omaha Magazine.