Minnesota’s deaf curlers hope to promote sport unity, keep winning

Almost every night of the week the St. Paul Curling Club is full of people playing the popular winter sport.

While most of them are ready to rock, some of them actually curl with a twist.

"A lot of deaf people don't know anything about curling. They don't know that it's an opportunity they could potentially be involved in," Herman Fuechtmann, a member of the USA Deaf Curling Team told FOX 9.

On this particular night the team is practicing its craft.

Speaking through an interpreter, Fuechtmann says he has been curling the longest after catching the sport on TV with his wife during the Winter Olympics 16 years ago.

"I like it's a sport, that it's an opportunity to play with other people," he said. "It's not an individual sport – it has a team dynamic."

Fuechtmann recruited Calvin Rausch and the two were part of the team that won the silver medal at the Deaflympics in 2007.

A team photo of the St. Paul Curling Club.

"I'm a farm boy, doing a lot of raking," Rausch said. "A lot of front yard type of work, and I enjoy movement and because of that I enjoy the opportunity to do this as well."

Steve Hubmer grew up watching his family curl in Mapleton, Minnesota, but he didn't participate himself until he was an adult.

"It’s something I watched and wished I did," he said. "I wished I'd started a long time ago, but now I'm involved."

While Ryan Johnson took to the ice a few years ago, a field trip to a curling clinic with some of his deaf students sparked his interest.

"The culture of it – it's more a rooted historical kind of sport as opposed to something more recent," he said. 

The team says while hearing curlers shout to sweepers about how they should move the stone down the ice as they take each shot deaf curlers use hand signals to communicate with the other players on their team. 

"It’s very helpful because if we are on ice from a distance we can see each other and communicate each other in that way," Fuechtmann said. "That's one difference that we definitely utilize when we are playing. We throw the same, we sweep the same – all the movements are the same. The difference is how we communicate with each other on the ice. We use sign language instead of words."

"It's both an advantage and a disadvantage," coach Joey Bata said. "They can communicate across the ice, whereas hearing people have to shout above everyone else that is out there. So that's one good thing about the hand signals. The bad part is when they are sweeping, they need two hands to sweep so it’s hard to sign with one hand and sweep with the other – that's one of the disadvantages." 

After being selected during tryouts in Blaine last fall the team qualified to compete in the World Deaf Curling Championship in Banff, Alberta, Canada in March. With three come-from-behind victories they beat out Ukraine to win the gold medal for the first time in the team's history.

"It was amazing. It was not expected," Rausch said. "It was difficult. It was a tough journey that I've been on – all three playoff games we would lose a little bit and come back and win. We would work really hard."

"We've known each other for a long time, but to come together and achieve that gold is really exciting," Hubmer said.

Team members credit their success to chemistry, and with only about 10 deaf curlers in all of Minnesota they hope their golden moment convinces other deaf athletes to take up the sport.

At the Deaflympics in another two years they hope to make a clean sweep of the competition again.