Until the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, curling was a sport largely unknown to South Koreans. However, the latest string of breakout performances by the women’s curling team has thrown the strategic winter sport into the limelight.
South Korea’s female curling team has risen to fresh international stardom at PyeongChang. Ranked eighth in global rankings, the host country has secured victories over some of the world’s top contenders in curling, including Canada, Switzerland and Great Britain.
On Monday, South Korea’s female curlers beat Sweden 7-6 in the round robin, clinching their fifth win. The previous day, Korea had defeated China 12-5. Korea is now tied for first place in women’s team curling, alongside Sweden, which was unbeaten before Monday.
This is a drastic improvement from 2011, when the 2018 Winter Games were awarded to PyeongChang. At the time, South Korea’s world ranking in women’s curling had been too low to even qualify for the Olympics.
Now with a track record of five wins and one loss at PyeongChang, South Korea is drawing closer to becoming one of the four teams eligible for the semifinals and its first ever Olympic medal in curling.
The unexpected success has brought the spotlight onto the curlers in the Korean team, as well as the story of how they came to play on the sport’s highest stage.
South Korea’s Olympics women’s curling team shares a high-five after beating Sweden 7-6 in the round robin match held at the Gangneung Curling Centre on Monday. The Korean team now has a track record of five wins and one loss. (Yonhap)
‘Garlic girls’ from Uiseong
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-hee.
The four competing members all attended the same girls’ high school in Uiseong, North Gyeongsang Province, a small town with a population of just over 53,000 that is famous for its garlic.
For this reason, Korean fans have dubbed them the “garlic girls.”
They have also earned the nickname “Team Kim,” as all the members have same family name. Even their coach, Kim Min-jung, has it.
Though they are all surnamed Kim, the most common last name in Korea, only two are related -- sisters Kim Yeong-mi and Kim Kyeong-ae.
Because they have the same last name, the curlers usually call each other by their first names during the match.
The five members have also taken on catchy English nicknames to help non-Koreans who struggle with their similar names.
Kim Eun-jeong is “Annie” (the name of a yoghurt brand), Kim Kyeong-ae is “Steak,” Kim Seon-yeong is “Sunny,” Kim Yeong-mi is “Pancake,” while Kim Cho-hee is "Chocho." According to their coach, the names were decided on a whim over breakfast, based on each person’s favorite breakfast dish.
South Korea’s Olympics women’s curling team beat Sweden 7-6 in the round robin match held at the Gangneung Curling Centre on Monday. The Korean team now has a track record of five wins and one loss. (Yonhap)
In contrast to its overnight fame, women’s curling had humble beginnings in Korea. According to media reports, Kim Eun-jung and Kim Yeong-mi picked up curling as an after-school activity for fun, after Korea opened its first ever curling stadium in Uiseong in 2006.
Kim Kyeong-ae, who had stopped by the stadium one day to pass on some items to her sister, ended up joining the curling squad. Soon after, Kim Seon-yeong, Kyeong-ae’s classmate, decided to jump in. Kim Cho-hee, the youngest among them, joined in 2015, completing the team.
Amid low public interest in curling and a lack of financial support, the team had struggled to find access to training facilities and support over the years. At times, they even had to spend their own cash to buy equipment.
Moreover, South Korea’s curling federation has been mired in several scandals over the years, including the alleged misuse of funds that cut off its athletes from the support they needed. The issue even prompted a government audit last year.
Despite the Olympics being held in their own country, the Korean team members had a hard time securing access to the Gangneung Curling Centre for on-site simulation runs and hiring additional foreign coaches to advise the young team.
Eventually, South Korea brought in a Canadian coach, Peter Gallant, to further boost the women’s curling team in addition to head coach Kim Min-jung.
The years of hardships were reflected by coach Kim Min-jung’s teary comments after Korea’s winning match against China on Sunday.
“(The future of) Korea’s curling is still not a highway, but a path full of thorns,” she said in an interview with the press, breaking into tears while recalling the difficulties the team had endured to get to its current place at the Olympics.
“Through us, we hope that curling can become a more widely known sport and that Korea can create a support system for curling that enables fair and objective competition. Instead of fixating on winning, we want to rewrite South Korea’s curling history.”Curling sensation sweeps Korea
All in all, South Korea’s Olympic watchers are more excited than ever about the female curling team as more people are expected to watch the game live in Gangneung as the team draws closer to its medal run.
“During the first preliminary rounds, interest in curling was relatively low. A few weeks into the Olympics, more people seem to be drawn to the sport, with tickets now selling out,” Han Jee-hoon, a 27-year-old sports presentation coordinator and translator working at the Gangneung Curling Centre, told The Korea Herald.
“South Korea is doing particularly well in women’s curling, which has helped boost interest among locals,” Han said. “I’ve heard many people say they hadn’t expected curling to be this fun to watch.”
Tech-savvy Koreans have also taken to the internet to share memes and fan art praising the curling team members and their unique competition habits.
South Korea will have a match against the US, scheduled for Tuesday at 2:05 p.m and against Russia on Wednesday at 9:05 a.m. at the Gangneung Curling Centre.
By Sohn Ji-young (firstname.lastname@example.org