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Olympic curling dominated by Minnesotans, Wisconsinites

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Curling Olympic Trials Finals
Nicole Joraanstad (C) delivers a stone as Allison Pottinger (L) and Natalie Nicholson (R) sweep for Team Debbie McCormick as they face Team Patti Lank in the Women's US Curling Olympic Trials Finals at the Broomfield Event Center on February 28, 2009 in Broomfield, Colorado.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Dozens of athletes from the upper Midwest will compete at the Olympic games, but no sport will be so dominated by Minnesotan and Wisconsinites as the U.S. men's and women's curling teams.

Watch a video of MPR's Cathy Wurzer learning the art of curling.

"It's part of the state and part of the culture," said John Benton, the lead for the U.S. men's team. 

Benton, of St. Michael, will head to Vancouver with a team composed entirely of upper Midwesterners. 

The U.S. teams face tough competition from old stalwarts like Canada, Sweden, and some newer curling teams, including China.  

But Benton says he's optimistic. "The difference between the number one team and the number ten team at the Olympics is going to be just a few shots," he said. "So if we perform our best, the podium is definitely within reach."

Curling players slide granite stones down a sheet of ice towards a bulls-eye target called "the house." Teams try to knock their opponents' stones out of the target or block their easy access to it. 

The sport's idiosyncratic "sweeping action" comes into play when teammates work to change the speed or direction of a stone by frantically sweeping the ice in front of it with brooms. 

Curling Olympic Trials
John Benton (L) and Jeff Isaacson (R) sweep for Team John Shuster during their men's semi final match against Team Todd Birr in the US Curling Olympic Trials at the Broomfield Event Center on February 27, 2009 in Broomfield, Colorado.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The way a stone is thrown and swept can cause a significant "curl," ideally into the best strategic position in or near the target.

Benton says the sport combines the strategy of chess with the finesse of golf. "You're trying to think a couple moves ahead," he said. "You're basing your performance on where the other team is positioning themselves." 

Curling has grown in popularity since its debut as a full medal sport at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. Local curling clubs have reported large surges in membership after the past three Olympic games.  

Allison Pottinger, vice skip for the U.S. women's team, says she thinks the sport's accessibility has attracted families, children, and older people. 

"It doesn't matter if you're tall or short, male or female," Pottinger, of Eden Prairie said. "It's actually a very equalizing sport."

Pottinger says preparing for her first Olympic competition is "little overwhelming," but that her team has a strategy for taking the ice.

"We're just promised ourselves to take a breath and take it in for a second," she said. Then she says she plans to "let it go and get on with the game."

(MPR producer Jeff Jones contributed to this report.)