Curling is cool, youngsters agree, and more schools are offering the winter sport in their curriculum, Roddy Mackenzie reports
It was two years ago that Rhona Martin captured Olympic gold in Salt Lake City for curling. Her success renewed interest in Scotland and the sport has hardly slipped in popularity in schools since.
As many as 7,000 Primary 6 and 7 pupils are expected to take to the ice this year as part of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club's introduction programme Curling's Cool, which is supported by the Bank of Scotland and is now going into its eighth year.
Scotland has 29 ice rinks, of which 24 run Curling's Cool programmes. These offer children the chance to try the game for the first time in anything from two to six sessions on the ice.
"The beauty of introducing curling to P7 pupils," says Emma Waite, one of the RCCC's eight regional development officers, "is that everyone is starting on the same level, which may not be the same with sports such as football, where children are at different levels by that age.
"The children love it. It's an entirely different experience for many of them and the programme is growing more popular every year.
"There is a performance pathway in place," she explains. "Children can go from Curling's Cool to an after-school club to a junior club to a performance squad to a regional squad and then to the junior national squad."
In addition to the Scottish Junior Championships, there is an annual national schools competition, which is currently taking place at regional level, with the finals to be played in Stirling on March 19-21.
"The scheme fits ideally into the 5-14 curriculum as it is building etiquette, sociability, team work and skills," continues Ms Waite.
"It is not a sport that is confined to private schools, as some people might think. More and more state schools are involved."
Funding from the Bank of Scotland, which has supported curling for 30 years, means costs to schools, including transport to rinks, are minimal.
Ice time remains a critical factor but most rinks have openings during the day. Curling prides itself on being relatively inexpensive to take up, with equipment available at the rinks and youngsters able to play in loose, warm clothing and clean training shoes.
A carpet version of the sport can be played in a gym to help hone skills too.
The RCCC has recently appointed a regional development officer for Highland and Moray, Gordon Kennedy, so the only area still without one is Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders, though an appointment is expected. Meanwhile, youth programmes in the area, which has three rinks, are being run by volunteers.
A new development manager is expected to start within the next month to replace Chris Hildrey, who left in September.
Ms Waite, who oversees curling development in Inverclyde and Renfrewshire, has the Greenacres rink, where Ms Martin plays, under her remit. An after-school club meets there every Monday and a junior club meets on Saturday mornings.
"The Greenacres rink has benefited a lot from having Rhona Martin here," says Ms Waite. "Our Curling's Cool programme is often taking place at the same time that Rhona is on the ice. She will always come over for a chat and for youngsters to have that sort of role model is brilliant. She is an Olympic champion yet did not take up the sport until she was 17, so they are saying 'What can I achieve when I am playing at 10, 11 years of age?' " Other role models for young curlers include Scottish champion David Murdoch, whose team won the European Championship for Scotland in December.
He is one of 24 curlers - men and women, making six teams - in the Scottish Institute of Sport.
To make it to the top requires as much dedication as for any sport, Ms Waite points out. "Strength and conditioning are very important and you have to be physically fit to play. There is a lot of sweeping involved. And as well as being fit, you have to be mentally aware," she says.
"The top curlers all have individual fitness programmes. With more and more countries taking up the sport seriously, you have to be in the peak of condition." (This season, 22 men's and 19 women's teams played at the European Championships.) "It is a sport that is treated a lot more seriously than it was, say 10 years ago," says Ms Waite. "I was recently listening to a discussion on BBC Radio 1 about the sports that will be big in the next few years and curling was one of those mentioned."