World Asia Pacific

In South Korea, a new Cinderella story is unfolding – on ice

working together

The Korean women’s curling team has surprised many – not least of all their compatriots – by defeating almost every single country so far.

South Korea's Kim Seon-yeong (l.) and Kim Yeong-mi (r.) sweep the ice as teammate 'skip' (captain) Kim Eun-jung (c.) looks on during a women's curling match against United States at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.
Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Annie, Pancake, Sunny, Steak, and ChoCho were virtually unknown to their fellow Koreans until this month. Now they’re the hottest ticket in Olympic curling – the country girls who have seemingly come out of nowhere to become serious medal contenders.

They took down Canada, the defending Olympic gold medalists.

They trounced Great Britain, whose team is made up entirely of Scots – the people who invented the game back in medieval times.

They defeated undefeated Sweden.

By Tuesday, they had bagged enough wins to secure one of the four slots in the semifinals – becoming the first Korean women’s team to do so, and establishing themselves as serious medal contenders.

Their phenomenal performance has filled the Olympic curling center way beyond expectations, swelled the ranks of Korean journalists paying attention to a sport they knew nothing about five minutes ago, and given the Olympic hosts a sense of pride for talent they didn’t know they had. But these Cinderellas spent years sweeping in obscurity before emerging into the spotlight of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

“A lot of people are saying that our curling team appeared suddenly. But our team – we didn’t just suddenly drop from the sky,” says Kim Min-jung, the team’s Korean coach. “It took 10 years to create our team.”

Newfound fans

It started with a few middle-school girls in the rural, southern district of Uiseoung, which until now was most famous for its garlic. Unbeknownst to most of the country, it was also home to the only curling rink in Korea. What started as a fun after-school activity has turned into an Olympic dream come true for team skip Kim Eun-jung and her teammates – all of whom share her last name.

Eun-jung, Seon-yeong, and sisters Kyeong-ae and Yeong-mi are all from Uiseong; only alternate Chohi hails from another part of the country. They came up with their English nicknames over breakfast one morning while competing in Canada. But the Korean press has taken to calling them the Garlic Girls.

Whatever their monikers, they are clearly Korea’s newest sweethearts. When EunSung throws a stone down the ice and hits an opponent’s stone out of the “house,” bringing her team closer to a win, the crowd erupts into cheers and chants of Dae Han Min Guk! – the rough equivalent to chanting U.S.A., U.S.A.!

“The girls are doing super well and their popularity has massively increased,” says Daesuk Park, sitting in the stands with a big Korean flag, alongside his adult daughter. She is sporting pink lipstick and a headband whose springs carry the slogan, “I [heart] PyeongChang.” He’s watched every single game on TV, each of which takes two to three hours. “I watch all of it – except when I go to the bathroom,” he says enthusiastically.

Above him, there’s a whole class of fourth-graders jumping up and down in their bleacher seats, waving homemade signs and hoping for a gold medal. In preparation for their field trip, they watched videos and played a mock version of the game with brooms and a Frisbee-like disc in gym class.

Then there are 88 employees of a town hall near Seoul that are filling two whole rows; they don’t pretend to be connoisseurs, but are optimistic about the women’s medal prospects.

“It might be hard,” says Kim Byung-suk, who has been following the games on TV, “but I can see that they’re improving.”

'A gravel road'

That’s an understatement.

When Team Kim, as they’re known, hired Canadian coach Peter Gallant of Prince Edward Island to improve their game a couple of years ago, he used to take a “book-load” of notes on each game. Now, he says, he barely takes any.

But even he says he would have considered three wins a good showing. They’re already up to six, putting them at the top of the rankings.

The local press is saying Team Kim is going to become the curling version of “The Best Moment of Our Lives,” a movie about South Korea’s 2004 Olympic handball team – an unlikely group of women who won silver.

But Kim Min-jung, the Korean coach, says the path to Pyeongchang has been a bumpy one.

“It’s not like a highway, it’s more like walking on a gravel road,” said Ms. Kim, who broke down in tears. She said internal problems with the country’s curling federation and a lack of funding meant the girls had had to pay their own way to international competitions. But thanks to their perseverance, they have found themselves shining on the world’s biggest sporting stage. 

Team Kim’s players don’t even know how famous they have become: They have decided not to use their phones for the duration of the Games, so as not to feel pressured by news reports or social-media comments. But they have drawn strength from the big crowds – the first they’ve ever seen.

At first they were quite surprised by the noise, player Kim Seon-yeong tells a gaggle of mostly Korean reporters after Tuesday’s game.

“But now whenever we hear the crowd applauding, we feel encouraged,” she says. “We feel that, ‘Oh, we actually accomplished something!’ ”

Which indeed they have, whether or not they get a medal.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.