Among the undoubted highlights of the competitions at the Gangneung Curling Centre going into week two of PyeongChang 2018 have been the powerful performances of the Republic of Korea’s women’s rink. Having qualified for the semi-finals with two matches to spare, they ended up topping the round-robin standings with a record of eight wins and just one defeat.
It has been a quite remarkable rise for the host nation’s women, who only made their Olympic debut four years earlier at Sochi 2014, where they finished a lowly third from bottom in the round-robin stage.
However, with the added incentive of playing in front of their own fans in 2018, their subsequent progress during the intervening Olympic cycle has been monumental.
After a hesitant start to their round-robin campaign in Gangneung, which saw them stumble against Japan, the Republic of Korea’s rink then embarked on a seven-match winning streak, which catapulted them to the top of the table.
Underlining their growing sense of self-belief, that run of victories included a 7-6 thriller against the Scandinavian heavyweights in which the Korean rink showcased pinpoint shots, strong teamwork and tactical prowess.
“It’s fascinating to be on the Olympic stage,” said the rink’s lead Kim Yeong-mi ahead of the Games.
I have been drawing in my head since I was a junior. If sketching is dreaming, participating in the Olympics is one of the stages of colouring. I think we will progress – like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.Kim Yeong-mi Republic of Korea
Meet ‘Team Kim’ (AKA Anny, Cho Cho, Steak, Sunny and Pancake)
One of the factors behind their strength is the strong bond between the members of the rink, who all hail from the same town in Uiseong, a county famous for producing garlic.
Kim Yeong-mi and Kim Kyeong-ae are siblings, while the other members of the rink are friends of Yeong-mi’s. Dubbed ‘The Garlic Girls’ because of their home region, they have meanwhile given each other some rather unusual nicknames too.
As Skip Kim Eun-jung explains, there is actually a very practical motivation for this. “All of the team members are called Kim. It could not be Kim 1, Kim 2, Kim 3! We wanted to set up nicknames that would be easy for foreigners to use. Some of us chose nicknames based on what we liked to eat for breakfast!”
Hence, the ROK third Kim Kyeong-ae is known as “Steak”, second Kim Seon Yeong is “Sunny” (apparently because she likes her eggs “sunny side up”), while lead Kim Yeong-mi is known as “Pancake”. More conventionally, Skip Kim Eun-jung and fifth Kim Cho-hee opted for nicknames that are phonetically similar to their Korean names - Anny and Cho Cho - while coach Kim Min-jung is simply “MJ”.
Long road to PyeongChang
Kim Kyeong-ae adds, the success they are currently enjoying has not come overnight - the road to PyeongChang has been a long one. “I prepared for the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games for 10 years. I will do my best so that the years are not in vain.”
They now have a place on the podium in their sights – with just Japan (the only team to beat them in PyeongChang) standing between them and a final showdown against the winners of Great Britain and Sweden. It would be an incredible climax to a remarkable journey.
Curling has no traditional base in the host country, and even at the start of the Games local fans were relatively indifferent – not least with the national obsessions of short track and speed skating taking place down the road in Gangneung. However, the exploits of “Team Kim” at PyeongChang 2018 have seen interest levels rise with each match, and they are now playing in front of packed crowds at the Gangneung Curling Centre.
“Even when we had a national competition, we played without any crowd because curling has not been popular or well known,” admitted Yeong-mi. “We didn't expect many people would come and watch us. We're just grateful for that.”
Typical of the fans who have flocked to the curling venue is Park Jin-jim, who made the three-hour journey from her home in Cheonan after getting tickets at the last minute.
“I wasn't interested in either curling or the Olympics but after watching curling games at home, I've started to like them, they're so cool,” said the 31-year-old.
And Yeong-mi says she and her team-mates are enjoying the novelty of such passionate support. “
We're getting a huge and warm support from our fans because they are cheering us so enthusiastically. I hope they can keep rooting for us.Kim Yeong-mi Republic of Korea