The British curler explains how he is balancing intensive work on his family’s farm with preparations for PyeongChang 2018
In 2010, when Eve Muirhead was making waves as a 19-year-old curling skip in Vancouver, her younger brother Thomas was arriving home from school to watch the action unfold on television. “That’s my first Olympic memory,” he says now, “and the first moment when I thought I wanted to strive to be on that Olympic stage one day. It really spurred me on.”
Fast forward eight years, and the 21-year-old will be joining Eve at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 when he competes as part of Team GB’s men’s team, led by Kyle Smith – and also featuring Glen, the eldest of the Muirhead siblings.
However, it was far from inevitable that the trio – who represent a Scottish curling dynasty, with their father Gordon having won a world title in 1999 – would all be sporting Team GB colours at the Gangneung Curling Centre come February. In fact, just last season Thomas and Glen were competing for different teams in pursuit of one Olympic spot – and at the same time, putting their rivalry on the rink to one side to run a farming business together.
“Sometimes it could be tough, but we respected each other for what we were both trying to achieve, so it never became much of an issue,” says Thomas, whose team eventually drafted in Glen as their alternate – or fifth player – after winning the battle for selection.
“Life’s a lot easier now we’re in the same team as we can openly discuss things, and we’re both striving for the same goal,” he continues. “We’re on ice together, we’re in the gym together, and we’re working at home together when we’re away from curling.”
All of that amounts to a pretty demanding schedule for the Perthshire-based brothers, who have taken over the day-to-day running of the business from their father, who once had to balance similar demands himself having competed at the Olympic Winter Games Albertville 1992.
“It’s mainly a sheep-farming business but we’ve got commercial cattle as well, so it’s quite labour-intensive,” explains Thomas. “You’ve got to be there to do the work – you can’t just turn a blind eye.”
A typical day for the Muirheads sees a full block of training – consisting of a gym session and a pair of two-hour practice sessions on the ice – sandwiched between a morning and an evening on the farm herding, feeding and breeding pedigree sheep.
“It can be exhausting, but you just have to embrace it and look at the positives,” adds Thomas. “We can go home at night and it takes our mind completely off curling, as we’ve got something else to think about. I think that’s healthy, and it’s helped us get to where we are. You can become too mentally caught up in your sport sometimes.”
However, when the curling season gets fully underway, as it did in September in Canada, a more flexible approach to work is needed that is structured around the demands of international competitions, which take on an even greater intensity during an Olympic year.
“Obviously, we juggle [the farm] with being full-time athletes, but the two actually knit together very well with each other because we can basically take as much time off as we need,” Thomas explains.
“We’re our own bosses, so we decide what happens; for example, if something can wait until the following week when we’re a bit quieter, or if something can be done at night instead of during the day when we might be at the ice rink.”
Muirhead senior still helps out on the farm when he can to offset the brothers’ travelling requirements, but watching his three children compete in PyeongChang is too good an opportunity to miss, so freelance help will be arranged for the weeks leading up to and during the Games.
But if Thomas – widely recognised as one of the brightest talents in the world game – comes back from the Republic of Korea as an Olympic medallist, would it be back to business as usual?
“Curling’s obviously not a sport where you can make millions – you really do need something else on the side,” he confirms in reference to his commitment to growing the business alongside his sporting career.
“But if you want it badly enough, then you’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”
With November’s European Curling Championships next on the horizon for Muirhead and his team-mates, things are gathering pace on the path to PyeongChang – and an Olympic medal would be as much a reflection of the toil, trust and teamwork on the farm as it would on the ice.