Curling capital celebrates Olympiansby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
The excitement of the Winter Olympics hasn't yet worn off in Bemidji. Hundreds of fans turned out in the northern Minnesota town Sunday to pay tribute to the men's and women's U.S. Olympic curling teams.
Both teams are based in Bemidji, where curling has been big for decades. Enthusiasts say the sport that was once considered obscure and quirky is now getting new respect and attention throughout the country.
Bemidji, Minn. — The Olympic athletes were paraded through downtown Bemidji in a horse drawn wagon. Hundreds of fans showed their appreciation by waving hammer hankies, American flags or curling brooms.
The City of Bemidji has proclaimed itself the "Curling Capital of the United States." That may very well be true. Half of the 10 members of the U.S. Olympic curling team call Bemidji home.
Curling fan Cathy Johnson of Bemidji says exposure from the winter Olympic games has brought lots of attention to the city and the sport.
"I think it's incredible," Johnson said. "It puts us on the map. It puts curling on the map. And I think we're extremely proud of the behavior of our men's and women's teams over there. I think their sportsmanship came through loud and clear. It's more than Minnesota nice. I'm just so proud of them, all of them."
The women's team was knocked out of final curling competition in Turin, Italy. But the men's team brought home a bronze medal. Pete Fenson, who leads the men's team, says the team has received hundreds of emails from fans across the country. Fenson says he's heard from people interested in learning how they can start curling leagues in their own communities.
"Part of our goal was to make a positive impact on the country and the world and hopefully it would help the game grow," Fenson said. "And it sound like that's what's starting to happen, and hopefully it will continue."
Bemidji's most famous resident, the towering lakefront statue of Paul Bunyan, is decked out in a Bunyan-sized curling broom. Students at Bemidji State University designed a bronze medal replica that hangs around Bunyan's neck.
Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann says the attention the athletes are getting is well deserved: "Oh, how can you think anything but good things about this. This is wonderful. It's a great day to be in Bemidji."
Lehmann says he expects the renewed attention to curling will translate into more visitors to Bemidji. He says there's talk of putting up a billboard letting tourists know they've arrived at the curling capital.
"We're already a tourist attraction, and now that we can show the world that even Paul Bunyan is a curler, with his tam and his bronze medal and the rock and the broom, I mean, man, I'll tell you what, everybody is a curler in Bemidji," he said.
U.S. women's team leader Cassie Johnson says when she was competing in Italy, she'd heard that curling fever had hit her home town. Signing autographs in the Bemidji Visitors Center, Johnson says the U.S. curlers were surprised at the level of support back home.
"We want to kind of get curling out there," Johnson said. "But I think the support that's been shown has really surprised us. The whole town of Bemidji seems to have signs up for us, even when we were gone. I've got pictures of all the signs that have gone up around town. It's really great to see."
After the Olympics, Cassie Johnson took a break from curling and did some traveling in Europe. The U.S. men's team, meanwhile, has yet to take a break. This weekend, Pete Fenson's Team USA captured the top spot in the 2006 World Curling Team Trials. The Bemidji team will now represent the United States in the World Curling Championships next month in Lowell, Massachusetts.
- Morning Edition, 03/13/2006, 8:25 a.m.