Forget Lindsey Vonn and Adam Rippon, the real rock stars of the Pyeongchang Olympics are a humble group of Korean curlers who have no idea they have become a global sensation.
They are called the “Garlic Girls”, the South Korean women’s curling team with the fairytale story whose moniker reflects the locally famed garlic grown in their hometown.
Never considered a medal contender coming into Pyeongchang, they have played their way into the gold medal game while earning worldwide attention for their fierce talent and funny personalities.
And yet the Garlic Girls have been almost totally sheltered from the international frenzy both by personal choice — they switched off their phones during the games to block outside attention — and by a protective coach who is keenly aware that curling is as much a mental game as a physical one.
After a recent match, the women were quickly shuffled past waiting reporters, giving journalists apologetic smiles and greetings of “Anyonghaseyo!” (hello) before vanishing.
None of them, says coach Kim Min-jung, are aware that they have become superstars.
“I’m sorry that I could not bring the athletes today, because I’m worried there will be too much pressure and burden on them,” Kim said. “Even the crowd is too interested in them.”
That interest is understandable. The Garlic Girls thrilled the home crowd by beating Japan 8-7 in a tiebreaking extra end on Friday night, clinching at least a silver medal — with a chance to win gold on Sunday against Sweden (11.05am AEDT).
Wildly skilled underdogs
And they seem tailor-made for stardom.
The wildly skilled underdogs came into the Olympics ranked eighth in the world and went on to crush curling heavyweights including Canada and Sweden. They are cute and comical, referring to themselves by quirky nicknames such as “Pancake” and “Steak”.
Two teammates are sisters and all are longtime friends, creating irresistible chemistry on the ice. The team’s “skip”, or captain, has a steely gaze and funky, owl-eyed glasses that have become fodder for endless internet memes.
Many Koreans who have never seen a curling match have nonetheless travelled to remote Gangneung to peek at their nation’s new darlings in person.
“I’m very proud of them,” said said Lee Ji-sun, a 26-year-old who had never been inside a curling arena before Wednesday’s match. “They are showing we can do well even in new sport events.”
Every match featuring the team is packed with screaming, flag-fluttering Koreans who leap to their feet to cheer on the women’s stunningly precise shots.
One fan in the crowd on Wednesday waved what appeared to be a hand-drawn portrait of skip Kim Eun-jung with her trademark spectacles.
The excitement surrounding the women even prompted a few dozen senior citizens from the southern city of Jaecheon to charter a bus to the arena so they could revel in the country’s newfound curling prestige.
“I actually don’t know curling rules, so I have to find out what’s going on from people sitting next to me,” said Yang Chang-nam, 77. “I feel very good as the South Korean team is doing well.”
That curling has gained any prominence in Korea is surprising in itself. Korea did not even have a team in Olympic curling until the 2014 Sochi Games.
From producing garlic to champion curlers
It took Koreans a while to wake up to curling, largely because the country lacked sufficient facilities until recent years, Kim Young, a curling legend who started the Korean Curling Club in 1988, said by email.
Now, he says, Korea has six dedicated curling arenas, and many schools have curling teams.
In 2006, South Korea’s first curling centre was built in the rural town of Uiseong.
Four of the five team members attended Uiseong Women’s High School, where they were on the school’s curling team. Uiseong’s reputation as the nation’s default curling capital slowly grew, and the curling centre has hosted about 15 major domestic and international curling events.
Still, until the women’s team began their surprise winning streak in Pyeongchang, Uiseong was better known for its prolific garlic production.
Koreans consider garlic a health food that boosts stamina. Seo Eun-ha, a 26-year-old Garlic Girls fan, believes garlic may have contributed to the team’s success. She also credits the women’s good teamwork and strong relationships.
Like many fans at Gangneung, Seo is particularly fond of the curlers’ unusual nicknames: Sunny, Steak, Pancake, Annie (a brand of yogurt) and ChoCho (a type of cookie).
“I think their nicknames go well with their lively images,” Seo said. “I like Steak the most. It sounds so funny and unique.”