Never considered a medal contender in the sport, the team crushed the world’s top curling powerhouses to arrive at Sunday’s final match, where it lost to Sweden 8-3 to take home silver.
Having won its first-ever Olympic medal in curling, South Korea is more excited than ever for its “Garlic Girls” who have emerged as the surprise stars of the 2018 Winter Olympics
|Kim Seon-yeong (left), Kim Eun-jung (center) and Kim Yeong-mi (right) of South Korea’s women’s curling team compete in the final Olympic match against the Swedish team at the Gangneung Curling Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, Sunday. Sweden won the match 8-3 to take gold, with Korea taking silver. (Yonhap)|
The story of the Garlic Girls, nicknamed after their hometown famous for its quality garlic, and their surprise run toward an Olympic gold medal has ignited a frenzy from Korea’s internet community as well as the local and global media.
From the start, the tale of the Garlic Girls has had all the right ingredients for an Olympic hero in the making.
Ranked eighth coming into the Olympics, they defeated some of the world’s biggest curling teams including Canada, Switzerland and Great Britain, racking up eight wins and just one loss in the preliminary round-robin tournament.
In the semifinals, they sealed a dramatic 8-7 victory over Japan in a match that extended into the extra 11th end, advancing to the final game to win a hard-earned silver.
The star curlers’ achievements shine even more because of their humble beginnings, and an array of unique “fun facts.”
The women’s curling team is led by 27-year-old Kim Eun-jung, the team’s skip, and three other Kims -- Kim Kyeong-ae (third), Kim Seon-yeong (second), Kim Yeong-mi (lead). The team also has a fifth player in the alternate position, Kim Cho-hi.
The four competing members all attended the same girls’ high school in Uiseong, North Gyeongsang Province, a small, countryside town with a population of just over 53,000.
|South Korea`s women`s curling team holds up their silver medals on Sunday (Yonhap)|
For them, curling was something they sort of stumbled upon as a way to deal with the boredom of provincial life. When Korea opened its first-ever curling stadium in Uiseong in 2006, Kim Eun-jung and Kim Yeong-mi, who were friends, decided to pick up curling as an after-school activity for fun.
One day, Kim Yeong-mi’s younger sister, Kim Kyeong-ae, stopped by the curling stadium to pass some items to her sister, and decided to give curling a go. Later, Kim Kyeong-ae’s friend, Kim Seon-yeong joined the curling gang.
Later, Kim Cho-hi, a promising Korean curler in training, joined the Uiseong girls in 2015, completing the national team now dubbed the Garlic Girls.
The fact that the team members all have the same last name of Kim, the most common last name Korea, but do not belong to the same blood-related family, has been a particular point of interest among the foreign media. Among the five members, only Kim Yeong-mi and Kim Kyeong-ae are real sisters.
The global media has also been enthralled by the catchy breakfast-inspired English nicknames taken on by the members to help non-Koreans who may be struggling with their similar names.
Kim Eun-jung is “Annie” (the name of a yogurt brand), Kim Kyeong-ae is “Steak,” Kim Seon-yeong is “Sunny (for sunny-side-up fried eggs),” Kim Yeong-mi is “Pancake,” while Kim Cho-hee is “Chocho (a type of cookie).” According to their coach, the names were decided on a whim over breakfast, based on each person’s favorite breakfast dish.
|Fans cheer on Korea’s women’s curling team with fan art posters during Korea’s match against Sweden at the Gangneung Curling Centre in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, Sunday. (Yonhap)|
The team has also earned the nickname “Team Kim,” as all of the members have the same family name. Even their coach, Kim Min-jung, has it.
According to curling rules, a team’s name is decided by the last name of the skip. So even with different last names, the team would have been named “Team Kim.” This time, however, “Team Kim” has taken on a double meaning.
The Garlic Girls’ endless winning streak has also thrust curling, a sport largely unknown to Koreans until now, into the limelight to ignite a nationwide sensation.
From curling-imitation parodies featuring vacuum robots and broomsticks to a plethora of internet memes commemorating the team’s stern-faced skip Kim Eun-jung, curling has earned a new and frivolous fan base across Korea.
Local fans here cannot get enough of Kim Eun-jung and her stern, charismatic expression which appears to remain unchanged at all times during the competition. The skip’s thick, owl-like glasses has become her trademark feature, with the glasses model going out of stock here as fans are opting for the same look.
Kim Eun-jung’s competition face and habits have become a source of countless internet memes and parodies as well. Fans have fallen in love with Kim shouting “Yeong-mi-yah!” the Korean phrase for calling out the name of the lead Kim Yeong-mi, to ask for a harder or softer sweeping action.
|Kim Eun-jung (Yonhap)|
On KakaoTalk, Korea’s most widely used mobile messenger, fans have been gathering in hundreds on “open chatrooms,” which anyone can join, to cheer on the athletes with fan art and messages of encouragement.
After Sunday’s final match, online fans even initiated a movement to get the phrase “Good job, women’s curling team” to become the most-searched word on Naver, the country’s most widely used search engine and internet portal.
Korea’s newfound interest in curling has also led to new business opportunities, particularly for those selling curling-related goods on the web.
According to local e-commerce operator Auction, sales of curling board games from Feb. 9-22 had risen 450 percent compared to the same period last year. The same goes for curling toys, whose sales increased by 219 percent during the same timeframe.
Looking ahead, there are rising expectations that firms selling self-driving robot vacuum cleaners like Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics could recruit the Olympic women’s curling team to create fun parody curling advertisements.
In the past week, several YouTube videos showing friends and families, who are “curling” with the vacuum as the stone and floor mops as the curling brooms, have been circulating on social media.
|South Korea`s women`s curling team (Yonhap)|
Ironically, the Garlic Girls are just now beginning to find out about the extent of their international stardom. During the Olympics, the athletes voluntarily turned in their phones and held off interviews to keep their concentration in the games.
“We have yet to get our cell phones back from our coach, so we don’t really know how popular we’ve gotten,” Kim Eun-jung said in a press conference after Sunday’s final match. “But we are aware that curling has become more popular recently, given the cheers we’ve been getting from the staff and audience.”
“That a lot of people have taken up interest in Korea’s curling is a big source of joy and gratitude for us. I think we’ll have to hurry up and get on the internet,” she added.
By Sohn Ji-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)