Curling Ice With Curlers Playing

From the archives: Who makes curling ice at the Winter Olympics?

WinField United senior warehouse operator by day, assistant head ice technician for USA Curling by night (and weekends)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Feb. 16, 2018.

By day, Shawn Olesen is a senior warehouse operator at our WinField United agronomy service center in Gardner, North Dakota. By night (and on weekends), he makes ice. But not just any ice—curling ice. And Shawn’s taking his revered skill to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. There, he will serve as assistant head ice technician for USA Curling.

At WinField United, Shawn’s job is to help load trucks, receive freight, pick loads and do whatever it takes to help make the warehouse safe and efficient. He’s part of a crew of 10 full-time employees (about 17 during the busy season) who help run the warehouse, which provides crop protection products to Land O’Lakes, Inc. member owners in eastern North Dakota, western Minnesota and parts of northeast South Dakota.

Shawn’s job with USA Curling is to provide event arenas with ice, level and pebble it. He works with about eight to 10 other technicians to prepare curling ice for national, international—and now Olympic—competitions.

Loud equipment, spending all day on your feet, working with a team—all things that are essential to the curling icemaking process and running a warehouse.

“Teamwork is huge in both endeavors,” says Shawn.

What is curling, anyway?

Curling began as a Scottish pastime in the early 16th century. Scottish emigrants brought the sport to Canada in the 1800s where it remains popular to this day. The Scots also brought curling to the United States, Switzerland and Sweden before the end of the 19th century. Today, the sport enjoys popularity in many countries including Qatar, Kazakhstan and Portugal. (Who knew?)

Two teams of four people take turns throwing 44-pound curling stones down a sheet of ice. The goal is to land your stones as close to the center of the target painted into the ice—or “house” in curling terms—as possible. After playing six-to-10 ends (rounds), the team with the most points wins. Of course, there’s plenty of strategy and other quirky rules, but we’ll leave that to the competitors.

Shawn competes—but not on the ice. His competition is the ice.

“Our job is to get it perfect and keep it perfect,” Shawn says of ice technicians.

Making the perfect ice

Making perfect curling ice is a long process. The crew descends upon the event arena five days in advance, if not more. They start by filtering water so it’s as clean as possible—the clearer the water, the better the pebbles (more on that in a moment). The rink is flooded with water, frozen, and planed until it’s perfectly level. Once this is achieved, the crew begins the pebble application.

Shawn and the crew use wands to spray water over the entire sheet of ice, creating pebbles of different sizes. Two applications are necessary to achieve the desired effect—a bumpy surface that melts a little when a curling stone makes contact. This creates the wet friction needed for the curling stone to glide toward the house.

“When you sprinkle the pebble on, it has to be just right,” says Shawn. “So, when the players throw their first stone at the beginning of the week, they’ll know what’s going to happen when they throw the last shot at the end of the week.”

But there’s more to making curling ice than freezing some water and spraying for the pebble. There are environmental factors that can impact icemaking: temperature, humidity and barometric pressure to name a few.

“If the humidity [in the building] gets too high or the dew point moves in the wrong direction, that creates frost, which drastically affects the stones,” explains Shawn.

Once the ice is ready, Shawn’s job shifts from preparation to maintenance. Between each curling game, he and the other ice technicians will scrape the top layer of old ice off and re-pebble. This is way beyond running a Zamboni across the ice at the end of a hockey period.

“For hockey ice, if they can get it to freeze, they’re pretty happy,” Shawn jokes.

Bringing home the gold

Shawn has traveled all around the world to help make ice for all levels of curling competition. But an invitation to his first Olympic Games shows that he is among the best ice technicians in the world. And he has two teams that he can count on—one in North Dakota and the other in Pyeongchang.

“Everybody at WinField United has been doing what they can to help,” says Shawn about covering his work while he is at the Olympics.

“We have a great team here at Gardner,” says Ben Zima, agronomy service center manager. “Everyone works together to bring top-notch service to our member-owners.”

“And the curling crew I work with are top tier guys who are good at what they do,” says Shawn.

Do your best work and help the team—a goal embraced by warehouse teams, curling icemaking teams and Olympic curlers alike.

“Together, we are going to make the best ice possible to help Team USA bring home medals,” Shawn says.