(from left) Kim Kyeong-ae, Kim Yeong-mi, Kim Eun-jung, Kim Seon-yeong
The Meadows School

How South Korea’s “Garlic Girls” Swept Their Way to Fame

The Winter Olympics come once every four years — and with them, a renewed interest in the strange sport of curling.

At first glance, curling is the outlier of the extreme winter sports. Rather than racing down icy slopes at 80 mph or making 5 meter flips in the air, teams send what look like rocks with handles slowly spiraling down an icy path, making for a good laugh when members start to frantically sweep in front of the stone.

But while the players aren’t making flashy moves, they’re constantly calculating and strategizing. Calling curling an “easy sport” would be a grave mistake. Four teams attempt to get granite stones as close as possible to the target some 100 feet away in a series of eight “ends” (rounds) — but only one team can score at the end of the round, resulting in an incredibly tense game that leaves viewers at the edge of their seats.

This year’s Winter Olympics in the South Korean province of Pyeongchang (dubbed the “Peace Olympics” due to increasing tensions between the Koreas) has come and gone after its closing ceremony on February 25. But the unexpected star that burst into the limelight was South Korea’s female curling team.

South Korea has a strange tradition of athletes that come, seemingly out of nowhere, to claim victory. The 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics saw breakout skeleton star Yun Sung-bin with his signature Iron Man helmet, who only started in high school. The 2010 Winter Olympics saw master figure skater Kim Yuna who, after a series of victories in world championships, handily began her reign over ice. South Korea’s curling team seems to fit right in with this tradition.

South Korea has only had a women’s curling team since the 2014 Winter Olympics, where they failed to compete with the best of teams. Then came the affectionately-called “Garlic Girls” — a new Korean team in 2018 who captured their home nation’s hearts and patriotic spirit.

The team, Kim Seon-yeong, Kim Yeong-mi, Kim Kyeong-ae and Kim Eun-jung, all grew up in the southern South Korean village of Uiseong — a town primarily known for its export of garlic, hence the smelly nickname. Oddly enough, the Uiseong government believed the best way to rejuvenate the village and the economy was to build a new curling stadium and make curling the official village sport.

But while no one would have understood their motives 12 years ago, the provincial government had some stunning foresight.

The Kims took up curling, using the new facility during their high school years, forming a team together with coach Kim Min-jung. Upon their qualification to the Olympics, they were ranked eighth place nationally.

In a stunning series of upsets, Korea quickly beat power teams in their first few rounds, winning by one against Sweden and Canada by two — leading to a nailbiting one-point victory in the tiebreaker with Japan in the semifinals. South Koreans went wild for this hometown team and their sudden victories, with the Olympic stands almost full to see their matches.

Suddenly, South Korea was doing well in an unknown sport to their country. A new curling craze had overtaken Korea, in part to both the “Garlic Girls’” skill and personalities, catapulting them into the position of idols: Koreans fell in love with the constant shouts of “Yeong-mi” at the team member to get her to sweep, and in love with skip Eun-jung’s stoic expression and glasses.

All the while, the team was too immersed in the tournament to realize how much their popularity was growing on social media. While the curling team eventually came second, losing to Sweden in a final rematch, their placement didn’t deter fans from their love of the girls.

The town officials had hoped that Uiseong would become a new destination for international and local curlers, but the “Team Kim” brought curling much further than the garlic village — and into the nation.

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