As professional curlers vie for medals in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Rockville Centre’s Zachary Ryan practices and competes in the sport locally, dreaming of one day reaching that stage.
Ryan, 18, stumbled upon curling in eighth grade while on a South Side Middle School trip to Quebec, Canada in 2013. When he returned home, he expressed the new hobby to his mom, who signed him up for the Long Island Curling Club.
“I didn’t know Long Island even had a team,” said Ryan, who at the time, was the only member of the club younger than 21. The LICC, which formed in 2008, meets on Saturday nights at the Long Island Sports Hub in Syosset, where they use the hockey ice as a curling sheet.
“‘We all know curling isn’t a real sport,’” Ryan recalled his friends saying when he informed them of his new undertaking. But once they saw him play and gave it a shot themselves, they warmed up to it. Ryan said he believes many others will feel similarly, noting curling’s growing popularity.
The sport involves sliding granite stones on ice toward a target area, also known as “the house.” Teammates with brooms can influence the rock’s path by sweeping the ice in front of it. Ryan explained the roles of the skip and the vice — the first and second in command, respectively — as well as strategies, such as guarding, where you place a stone to block the opponents’ stones from reaching the target. His father, Tom, who doubles as his teammate, shared more curling lingo, noting that the sport is sometimes called “chess on ice.”
It wasn’t until Ryan saw Canadian Olympian Jennifer Jones win gold at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, that he truly understood how far he could go with curling.
But that year, Ryan became ill with Lime Disease, halting him from finishing his sophomore year at South Side High School. He was bedridden for six days a week while undergoing treatment, but managed to muster up the strength to keep curling on Saturday nights.
“It was big for me, because after I started curling, I was also playing other sports like basketball and baseball,” Ryan explained. “As I got more sick, I couldn’t handle the other sports, yet curling was the one I still could.”
He noted that he was able to continue curling at that time not because it’s easy, but because it requires more technique than power. “I felt like a normal kid out there,” Ryan said. “I don’t think anyone on the ice even really knew that I was sick.”
Off the ice, Ryan was in his bed watching old curling matches from the 1980’s and 90’s, studying the greats.
Ryan was out of traditional schooling for three years, being tutored at home. Last year, he returned to South Side High School’s “Greenhouse” off-site school, where students with academic or personal troubles are taught, and graduated in December.
Despite the struggling with the disease, he kept practicing and competing at bonspiels, a curling term for tournaments, across the East coast. “I’m driven by the aspect of what I think I can achieve with the game,” Ryan said. “I definitely think that one day maybe I will be at the Olympics.”
Last year, Ryan competed in the U.S. Men’s Arena Championship at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and said he plans to compete in the upcoming tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah this May.
“I think curling motivated him while he was sick,” Tom said. “It was pretty much the only thing he could manage to do. It was a big piece of his getting better.”
His mother, Jane, agreed, adding, “It gave him the push he needed to get better, and now he’s taking it as far as he can go.”
Tom and Jane said their son practices late at night in the basement of their home in what he calls his “curling dojo.” Ryan uses the slippery carpet as ice and turned his skateboard, books and even his old Tonka truck toy into makeshift tools used for curling.
“I could see Zach maybe someday going to the Olympics,” said Michael Greene, founder of the LICC. “He could do it. All he needs is more practice.” Greene added that Ryan is always “right on the broom,” or on target, and attributed many of their wins to Ryan’s efforts as his vice.
“He’s pretty majestic, I’ll give him that,” laughed Keith Wisbauer, a younger member of the LICC. “But in all seriousness, he is someone to look out for.”
Ryan said he isn’t sure what university he will be attending, or if college is what’s next, but he is certain that curling will always be a part of his future.
“Being sick, if anything, has given me a lot of perspective,” Ryan said. “…I may have missed out on three years of my life, but I think that’s a price well paid for this new outlook on life. I have to make the most of the time I have and I think it’s [more] important I do the things that I want than necessarily the things that people say I have to do.”