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By Kevin Fee, Published April 09 2008

French get into curling

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – When it comes time to prepare for world championships, the French team heads to Canada.

“It’s the best place to train,” France third Tony Angiboust said. “The ice is perfect.”

And there’s plenty of ice in the Toronto, Ont., area, where the Thomas Dufour rink of France trained for several weeks this winter. One will only find two sheets of curling ice in the entire country of France. Since those ice sheets aren’t ideal, the country holds its qualifying tournament for the European Curling Championships in Geneva, Switzerland.

But that hasn’t stopped Dufour and his teammates from being competitive on the world stage. The French are right in the mix in the World Men’s Curling Championship. It recorded a big win Tuesday afternoon, as Dufour scored one in the 10th end to defeat the Craig Brown rink of the United States 6-5.

Dufour also defeated the United States in round-robin play in 2007.

While there are anywhere from 100 to 200 curlers (depending on who you talk to on the French team) in the entire country of France, skiing is either a hobby or an occupation – or both – for everybody on the Dufour team.

Skiing is big where the French team comes from – Le Tour, a village of about 60 people close to Chamonix, France.

“Everybody skis,” Angiboust said while eating at the Great Wall Buffet on Tuesday night. “You work and you ski.”

Chamonix, the home curling club for Dufour, is known for off piste skiing, extreme skiing on unmarked, ungroomed terrain.

Dufour, a ski guide, is hoping the area becomes better known for having strong curlers. His team already has qualified for the 2008 European championships in December in Sweden. On Dufour’s mind now is a strong in the world championship, which would give the country qualifying points toward the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver.

France is coming off a seventh-place finish in the 2007 European tournament in December in Fuessen, Germany. In early January, the team went to Canada to train before heading home for the French national tournament.

In addition to training in Canada, the team has a Canadian coach in Andre Ferland. Ferland, who’s from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, came out of retirement to coach the Dufour team this season.

“I was impressed with the quality of their preparation, so it motivated me to come back,” Ferland said.

The team’s training is supported by the French ice sports federation. Players’ travel and living expenses are paid by the group.

Only about five teams regularly compete for the French national title. However, the Dufour team has ties to a significant moment in curling history. Chamonix hosted the 1924 Winter Olympics, the first to include curling. The rocks used then are still on display in Chamonix, Angiboust said.

Dufour was asked what he enjoys more, skiing or curling.

“Depends,” he said. “When I play good, I like curling.”

Things are going fairly well in Grand Forks.

“Some people are surprised to see how France is good,” Ferland said, “because France didn’t have a high reputation.”

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.