While it seems like just about every small town in Canada has its own dedicated curling rink, in Turkey — a country of more than 84 million people — there were, until recently, none.
But the sport has grown a dedicated following over the past decade, and this week, a team of teachers from Turkey is giving its profile a boost as it makes its debut at the World Women’s Curling Championship in Prince George, B.C.
The women’s team is led by 24-year-old Dilşat Yildiz and 34-year-old Önzur Polat, both of whom are teachers in Erzurum — an eastern city approximately 1,226 kilometres from Istanbul and 300 kilometres from Turkey’s borders with Armenia and Georgia.
Erzurum is also home to Turkey’s first dedicated curling rink, the Milli Piyango Curling Arena, which was built in 2010 to help host the 2011 Winter Universiade, or World University Games.
Polat competed in that tournament, skipping her team through a nine-game losing streak.
But she stuck with the sport and says she is proud to be representing her country on the world stage in Canada.
“We are so happy,” she said in an interview at the CN Centre in Prince George. “This crowd and ambience is [great].”
Aside from Yildiz and Polat, the Turkish side consists of 32-year-old Ayşe Gözütok, another teacher from Erzurum, and Berfin Şengül, a 19-year-old athlete from the nearby city of Erzincan.
A growing sport in eastern Turkey
Prior to 2010, curling in Turkey was primarily a recreational sport played informally by people involved in other ice sports.
The 2011 Winter Universiade sparked more interest, and in 2016, the Turkish Curling Federation was established to formally grow the game professionally, with the hope of making it “one of the most recognizable sports in Turkey” by 2026.
According to Sports Illustrated’s The Curling News newsletter, Yildiz’s women’s team was the first to make the curling world pay attention to Turkey after winning a series of games between 2012 and 2015 that earned them a place in the European “A” division.
Though Turkey has so far been winless at the 2022 Women’s Worlds, several games have been close, including a Tuesday match against Denmark which went into an extra end before the Danes won 11-10.
Denmark skip Madeline DuPont said she’s seen a definite improvement from the Turkish side after playing them at several previous events.
“They’re playing close games with almost everyone,” she said. “I can imagine them being quite nervous about this whole thing, but then again when no one expects anything of you, I guess it’s easier to surprise.”
“Maybe they’re just feeling comfortable about being underdogs.”
The poor showing hasn’t hurt the team’s profile at home, though. On March 22, the Hürriyet, Turkey’s most widely-circulated newspaper, ran a front-page photo praising the team’s performance in Prince George.
Polat says she’s still hopeful her team will pull off a win in this week’s tournament, but even if they don’t, she’s confident interest in curling will continue to grow in her home country — and in particular her hometown — which she believes will produce future international competitors.
“We have so many curlers in Erzurum,” she said.