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Original Issue

Winning one for the skip

The U.S. showed the world that we're not a bunch of rinky-dinks

As the 1976 curling championship of the planet Earth glided along in the raw gray environs of Duluth last week, much of the talk was of one team—the American—and, more heatedly, of one man, a thin and sometimes diabolical-looking primary-school teacher named Bruce Roberts. He was the skip, the captain and strategist of the four-man U.S. entry. And as the tournament moved through its initial round-robin eliminations, his domination over his team and, ultimately, over the entire challenging field of nine other nations, came to be so overwhelming that people took to referring to the U.S. entry as "Roberts." Thus it was that Roberts conquered France, Roberts vanquished Switzerland, Roberts rolled on to grand triumphs over Scotland, Canada, Italy, West Germany, Denmark and Norway. Indeed, his approach to the sport lay somewhere between the philosophies of Napoleon and Vince Lombardi. With withering intensity, Roberts said, "To me, the ice is war. My sole purpose in being there is to win. I believe that a winner never quits and a quitter never wins."

Curling is an ancient pastime, first played in Scotland around the turn of the 16th century. The object of the game is to leave the most stones—42-pound spheroids of polished rock—nearest the center of a large bull's-eye on the ice, known as the "house." And while the object of the game is simple, the playing of it is not. A world-class curler can propel a stone at a precise speed in a perfectly calibrated arc. He knows the exact physics of kissing an opponent's stone out of the house while leaving his own in a scoring area. He scrupulously supervises his sweepers, who whisk the ice with brooms ahead of the gliding stone; as they sweep, the surface temperature rises imperceptibly, making the stone slip along ever so slightly farther than it would otherwise.

Curling, as it has developed over the centuries, is generally a calm and comradely pastime, a game perhaps more closely associated with the ways of portly middle age than of charging youth. Last week in Duluth, however, this was not quite the case. Roberts' team is a young and hungry bunch, all big strong sons of miners reared in the tough old town of Hibbing on the Mesabi iron range. The team, called a "rink," was founded and forged by the 33-year-old Roberts two years ago. Its teamwork has been polished to the point where it resembles clockwork. Besides Roberts, the Hibbing rink includes his brother Joey, 24; Gary Kleffmann, 23; and Jerry Scott, 23. How did they achieve such precision? "We're all very close," said Roberts. "We fish and we all go hunting together, and, in fact, we're all actually relatives. Joey and I are brothers, Gary and Jerry are cousins, and last fall Joey married Gary's sister."

However close the ties that bind this rink, the core of its energy is Roberts. He displays an almost demonic determination when he curls. When his deep-set, glowering blue eyes take the sight line for sending off a stone, they seem capable of melting the ice—and everything else in range. His concentration is as deep as any chess master's and, on occasion, the bite of his desire to win offends the gentler curling purists. A couple of times last week he reacted to an imperfect shot by his rink by shaking his broom imperiously; occasionally he displayed unmistakable disdain for poor performances by his opponents.

Such actions, mild as they seem compared to those in other sports, were shocking to curlers. Roberts himself was unmoved by the criticism. "You can't be friendly with an opponent during a competition," he said. "I am an intense guy, a hostile guy when I am curling. So is the team. We are volatile guys. We have actually had fistfights in matches on the iron range." Nothing close to that happened in Duluth last week but Roberts was all but invincible during the round-robin phase of the competition. When that was over, the U.S. stood on top with an 8-1 record; Switzerland, which won the 1975 world championship, was second at 7-2; Scotland third at 6-3; and Sweden fourth after a tie-breaker match with Italy. These four teams entered a weekend sudden-death contest.

The Americans, who have won two championships since world curling titles were created in 1959, seemed to be the class of the 1976 meet. The semifinal against Sweden, which had handed Roberts his only loss, was a runaway 9-3 U.S. revenge. Roberts brought his usual malevolent look and his "ice is war" philosophy to this match; yet there was a misleading aspect to this competitive image. That morning he had watched TV cartoons, such as the Pink Panther and the Road Runner, his routine Saturday morning activity. "I never miss them," he said. "To get along with kids, you have to stay young. To do that, it helps to understand and do the things kids do." And each weekday morning during the round-robin marathon he continued to go to school and teach his fifth-graders, setting up a kind of Mr. Chips and Dr. Strangelove dual personality, each one adjustable to the setting.

Roberts was plainly more Strangelove than Chips in Sunday's championship match in which the U.S. met Scotland, which had edged the Swiss 4-3. In a tense duel, Roberts outskipped his opposite number, a doughty little man named Bill Muirhead, and the U.S. eked out a 6-5 victory that was not decided until the next to last stone was curled.

No sooner was the world championship won than Roberts left off his curling campaign against the world and turned back into Mr. Chips, making up report cards for his students and preparing for parents' conferences on Monday. Asked about his abrupt turnabout, Roberts grinned, shrugged and said, "I have been curling since I was seven. That's 26 years. You should never forget that this game is played on ice. It's bound to be a little nuts."