By Dalene Heck
This story was first published in the March 2019 print and digital edition of The Curling News
To any seasoned curler, there is no sound quite like it: the soft static produced as a teflon slider glides over frosty ice, especially for the first time in a season, and especially if you are the only one in the rink. The static amplifies by bouncing off quiet corners as you settle into the hack.
That sound takes me right back to my childhood. It reminds me of my junior curling years when every day after high school ended, I would make the walk to the nearby rink and lace up my shoes. Sometimes I was joined by teammates, but on many days I was solo, throwing takeout after takeout, draw after draw, aiming at an invisible broom and judging my own release and precision.
My skill didn’t take me very far, nor did my dedication. I moved away from home for post-secondary education and then jumped into a demanding career. I watched as my junior colleagues went on to achieve tremendous things – my former teammate Heather Nedohin began her run to greatness just two years after we hit the ice together. I acutely remember one devastating provincial loss over future Olympian Susan O’Connor. I even recall explaining how the modified triple-knockout system worked to fellow Peace-district competitor Carter Rycroft at his very first provincials. They, and many others, clearly bested my attempts, but I never let it dampen my enjoyment of the game. Curling has always remained a big part of my life. My marriage was even a product of the sport when I hitched up with a Canadian junior champion (Pete Heck) over seventeen years ago.
Yet I stepped away from the game for ten years, and it was only this last fall when I heard that blissful static sound once again. I pulled my shoes out of the basement, headed to the rink, and attempted a few slides. And like any unseasoned curler, that ambitious pursuit was followed by aching muscles and questions as to why I put myself through this fresh hell. But I would go back again and again over the weeks to come.
* * *
It wasn’t a blatant decision that kept me away from the game for a decade, but a circumstance of another big life choice. In 2009, Pete and I sold everything to travel the world, and there was no room in our backpacks for teflon sliders or curling brooms. Our first foray into the nomadic life took us to Bolivia and six other South American countries, and curling wasn’t much of a thought in any of those places. I remember watching the 2010 Olympics in a restaurant in Peru; all of the other patrons looked at the TV screen quizzically while we were enraptured. Our Spanish was good enough to pick up that the announcers were quite confused as to why anyone would throw a rock through the house to score nothing, and if they seemed unsure as to what to talk about next, the commentary always reverted to team Norway’s colourful pantalones.
We didn’t know then that that first year of a nomadic lifestyle would turn into eight. We sated our thirst for curling by “borrowing” our friends’ TSN passwords and enlisting a VPN service that would allow us to log on anonymously from wherever we were. While housesitting for friends in rural Turkey, we invited locals over to watch it while we explained what was going on. And once, during a journey through Europe, we contacted a few clubs to see if we could stop by. Only Slovenia responded: having introduced curling to the country less than two years before, they were excited to have some Canadians drop by and play.
That almost resulted in us living in Slovenia, actually. After that morning at the rink, Pete admitted to our new friends that it was an unspoken dream of ours to live in a foreign country that was new to curling in order to help them develop their local program. They loved the idea and invited us back the following summer to get a feel for what it would really be like to live in Ljubljana. We fell hard for the picturesque capital city, but the timing was just not right for either of us. We still hold out some faint hope, even though, after almost eight years of nomadic living, we have returned to live in our home province of Alberta.
* * *
Since our return, that soft static sound of teflon on ice has been comforting to me for so many reasons. Not only did it reinvigorate my love for the sport that has been such a defining part of my life, but it also became a milestone in my recovery. It wasn’t by choice that my husband and I decided to settle back in Canada – our travels were ended rather abruptly when I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia.
Treatment was harsh but effective. APL is a weird little cancer that does its damnedest to kill immediately, but once the first scary weeks are passed, is highly curable. It is something that I will not likely have to deal with again and yet it has altered me forever. Our travels have slowed indefinitely as we find ourselves resuming a life we thought we had left behind. It was a hard transition (largely because it was unanticipated) but one that we have since embraced. Much of that has to do with the support of our family and friends, of course, but also because of our return to the rink near us in Lethbridge, Alberta.
On that first day out, I strained to throw even a handful of rocks and barely was able to lift myself off of the ice after each one. I had just finished treatment a couple of months before and my body was mushy and uncooperative. The following week, the ladies league started, and my new throw-together team allowed me to skip because I knew that I did not yet possess the strength to sweep. With every slide, I just hoped my weakened leg would hold me up.
I consider my progress on the ice as a marker for progress in my cancer recovery. I suffered a setback when sciatica kept me away for most of November and December, but I rebounded to sweep my first full game in early January. In February I entered a bonspiel and played third for all three of our games. I swept enthusiastically, and my energy level suggested I could have even done more. Other parts of my body are still clearly struggling. Many trips to the gym have helped my muscles regain their shape, but as anyone who curls knows, it’s a sport that demands some unusual contortions. Even though I am proud to be at a level of fitness I never thought I would achieve again, I know I’ve still got a ways to go.
But I feel more determined than ever, and I haven’t quite misplaced all of my skill. I have only one loss to my name this season (the wins I share with my young and able-bodied teammates, of course, but I am proud to have logged some killer shots as well). It is unlikely I will ever find myself in a provincial event again, but if I can pull off a few bonspiel wins (or at least take home a prize for best costume), then I will call this renewed pursuit a grand success.
But until then, the sweet sound of slider static will be enough to carry me through the rest of this season.
Dalene and Pete Heck are accomplished writers and wanderers whose numerous awards include National Geographic’s “Travelers of the Year” in 2014. Follow on Twitter @HeckticTravels and @HeckticMedia and on their blog at hecktictravels.com