Shawn Olesen has a day job back in Fargo, North Dakota, as a warehouse manager, and the work, he said, is rewarding.
But preparing an ice surface taps into his passion – and it’s what brings him to Cheney this week for the USA Men’s and Women’s Curling National Championships that start on Saturday.
Olesen arrived at the Eastern Washington University Recreation Center on Sunday to unload the various machines and gear necessary to get the playing surface ready, a calculated process he and his crew expected to finish sometime late Thursday or early Friday.
“Our goal is to be unnoticed by the athletes,” Olesen said on Tuesday, “and they are provided, from the first day of practice to the last shot of the finals, a consistent, predictable playing surface.”
The Spokane Sports Commission bid for the chance to host the curling event, which previously came to the Pacific Northwest, to Everett, in 2017.
Curling doesn’t have the following in this region quite like it does in the upper Midwest, where most of the ice crew flew in from to help Olesen get the surface ready. The Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area has a curling club, but no ice dedicated to the sport full-time.
That’s significant, because the stones used in curling don’t curl well at all on the perfectly flat surfaces that are ideal for hockey and figure skating.
“That 40-pound stone would never travel anywhere to speak of on a flat surface,” Olesen said. “So we sprinkle water on it, and we call that pebbling.”
Such a surface would make for terrible skating, but it makes for ideal curling, as competitors compete in a game that looks a lot like shuffleboard on ice: However, instead of sand facilitating movement, the ice pebbles do so.
“The amount and the size of the pebbles we put out on the ice makes a difference in speed and curl,” Olesen said, “so we gotta adjust and decide what’s gonna be the best recipe to make the stones perform the best.”
Like the rest of his crew, Olesen started out as a curler before slipping into surface preparation and maintenance about 12 years ago. He still curls, too, but said he knew quickly when he started playing that if he were ever to be involved in an event of this magnitude, it would be in a maintenance capacity.
The role has sent him all over the world, including to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where the USA men’s team won the gold medal. Four members of that team will compete in Cheney this coming week.
Olesen said many people have popped into the recreation center to watch the crew’s setup process this week, a multilayered, meticulous process. His crew filters water to a specific level of purity to ensure hard ice that won’t cut in the way hockey ice would, and that the pebbles will erode just the right amount during each competition.
“As the game goes, the pebble does wear, and even though it is wearing, the stones are reacting consistently,” Olesen said. “When it doesn’t, we notice that right away.”
After each match, the ice crew will use two machines to scrape off the pebble, then they use a special hose attachment that looks like a rounded leaf to spray on a new layer.
“Everybody wants the ice to play the same way,” said Keith Stauber, who came from Duluth, Minnesota, to volunteer with the ice crew.
Stauber and many on the crew have worked together for years, holding down full-time jobs during the warmer months of the year, then getting away to help with curling when they can.
“It’s rewarding to see when you do get it right,” Olesen said. “The people are awesome. These guys came from all over the country. We come together, learn from each other, (take what we can) home and be a part of the sport you like.
“My day job is rewarding and a good job, and then I get to come and do (my) passion. It’s a blast.”
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