Remember Rhona

10th February 2006 at 00:00
It's time for the Winter Olympics again - so schools are expecting to see a renewed interest in curling. Roddy Mackenzie reports

Graham Sloan has left no stone unturned as he seeks to keep Scottish schoolchildren brushing up on their curling. It is four years since Rhona Martin captured a gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, and Mr Sloan has seen his sport grow considerably.

A television audience of 5.7 million in the United Kingdom tuned in after midnight to watch Rhona Martin strike gold in 2002 - a viewing figure that astonished many people, even those involved in the sport. As the Winter Olympics opens in Turin, he is bracing himself for another avalanche of interest from schoolchildren in his area.

"We did notice a big growth in our junior base after the last Winter Olympics," says the curling development officer for Dumfries and Galloway.

"I took over this post in 2001, and 2002 was a big step forward for us. In this area alone, we now have 700 to 800 schoolchildren on the ice between September and the end of March. I'm sure we'd have more if the ice time was available.

"The only concern is getting enough coaches to cope with demand. Because they are volunteers, it is difficult for them to give up all of their free time."

The Royal Caledonian Curling Club (RCCC), which runs the game in Scotland, has flourished in recent years and is keen to see a steady stream of talent coming through. There are eight area development officers around the country.

Dumfries is an area where the sport is growing. The town's Ice Bowl now hosts pupils every week. Seven or eight secondary school teams have played there every Monday in a schools' league since 2002 . The game is also grabbing younger pupils; 24 local primaries are expected to compete in a schools' championship next month.

"Children are competing from the age of 10 upwards," continues Mr Sloan, "And they are using full-size stones at that age. We appreciate it is difficult to keep a youngster hooked on any sport when there are so many different distractions for them. But if you can get children for a few sessions and show them that they are making progress and they see the signs themselves, then you have a good chance of holding onto them.

"You can generally spot a talented player from an early age and that is when we try to get them involved in the clubs, where there is more coaching and competition available."

Thirty of the Dumfries Monday pupils, go on to play in clubs on Wednesdays.

"There is a pathway in place which goes from the grass-roots to a performance squad," says Mr Sloan, "and the talented youngsters can graduate through regional squads through area institutes to the Scottish Institute of Sport and then maybe even the Olympics."

Mr Sloan set up a New Kids on the Rock programme three years ago, at Dumfries Ice Bowl, to give Under-17 players more competition. It filled a void and gave school players a chance to sharpen their skills. This year it will be expanded to take in foreign rinks.

The programme - on April 8 and 9 - has been upgraded to an Under-21 event, but players as young as 14 are expected to take part. Entries have been received from Sweden, Switzerland and Holland.

"Scotland has held its own in world curling in recent years and it is important our young players continue to get exposure to teams from other countries," explains Mr Sloan. "I don't think they're doing anything very different from us, but some countries have more competitions for junior age groups. "

Scotland's women's team recently won the European junior title and go to the World Junior Championships in South Korea next month. The men's team has also qualified.

The game is played as much in state schools as in the private sector, as can be seen at the Scottish Schools finals at Murrayfield next month (March 17-19).

Mr Sloan is keen to widen the net as much as possible. "Kirkcudbright Academy has qualified for the Scottish Schools finals and this is only the second year it has been playing," he enthuses. "The game is strong in secondary schools in Dumfries and Galloway but maybe we could expand to some of the private schools in the Carlisle area."

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