South Korea's curling silver brings Olympic spirit to life

Canadian coach guides 'Garlic Girls' to country's 1st curling medal

South Korea's curling silver brings Olympic spirit to life
South Korea's women's curling team earned a silver medal, the country's first Olympic medal in the sport. © Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

By Devin Heroux, CBC Sports

The South Korean fans wouldn't stop cheering, even when the game was out of reach and their team was about to lose.

In the ninth end and down four points to Sweden, the crowd chanted, waved flags and clapped relentlessly. For many, it was their first time ever watching the sport. In a lot of cases they weren't even quite sure if it was a good end or bad end of curling until the numbers would light up the scoreboard. 

They didn't care their team was about to lose the gold medal game. In a lot of ways it was never about that anyway. The four curling women from South Korea became curling rock stars overnight after placing first in the round robin. They could do no wrong. They had made it this far and that was good enough.

Everyone in the Gangneung Curling Venue cheering for the home team was bursting with pride. 

The game came to an abrupt stop at the end of that ninth end. The Koreans conceded, shaking hands and surrendering to the Swedes with the score 8-3.

The dream of gold for the home team was ruined. The team was devastated. They so badly wanted it for their team, for the fans, for the entire country. The Koreans couldn't fight back their tears. 

But then in their moment of despair, they stood at the end of the curling sheet together, held hands and lifted their heads before bowing to each section of the arena. 

Skip Kim Eun-jung, 27, known for her steely concentration and thick-framed glasses, started to smile. 

All four members of the team, all with the last name Kim — the team is known as Team Kim — basked in the raucous cheers raining down on them. Fans also call them the "Garlic Girls" because of the large of amount of garlic grown in the region they come from.

And watching it all from the other end of the arena was their Canadian coach Peter Gallant.

"Two years ago this team didn't believe they were good enough to win a game," Gallant said. "This week they believed they were the best in the world."

From P.E.I. to Pyeongchang

Gallant joined the team a little more than two years ago. He has a wealth of Canadian curling experience. The pride of Prince Edward Island has curled in nine Briers. His son, Brett, is an elite curler with Brad Gushue's rink. 

He was tasked with helping the team become competitive for the Olympics. 

"They had a pretty good game before I came," he said. "I was more fine-tuning them and teaching them a better way to play the game. They had the technical skill but they really didn't know how to go about the strategy."

Gallant says the team practiced five times a week in the lead up to this. They were serious about getting good and making a push for he podium. 

The goal coming into the Olympics was to make it into the playoffs. The top four teams earned that right. It wouldn't be easy though and Gallant knew it. Besides, the team was going up against Canada to begin the Olympics. Rachel Homan's Canadian team are the reigning world champions. 

The Koreans made a statement though, defeating Homan 8-6 in the opener and never looked back. They finished the round robin in first place and only lost once.

For Gallant though, the defining moment of this all came against Japan in the semifinal. In front of a standing room only crowd, skip Kim needed to make an extremely tough draw to the button in an extra end to win the game.

The pressure was immense. A win meant they would be guaranteed a medal. The arena went silent. 

Kim delivered, sending people into hysterics over curling in South Korea.

"To see her make that shot in that moment was remarkable," Gallant said. "That was a life-changing moment because it meant they were guaranteed a medal. I was so proud of all of them."

Curling dreams sparked

The Korean women's curling team became the faces of the Games for the host nation. They were in every newspaper, magazine and on every TV channel. 

Throngs of fans screamed at them after every game — Korean curling groupies who wanted autographs and selfies with the team. 

"And to win this first medal in their home country, they're superstars," Gallant said.

He also says the sport was relatively unknown in South Korea before all of this. Other than a few professional curlers, it isn't played recreationally in the country. 

"You hope a lot of these people get to try the sport. I think that's the bottom line what they're hoping for in Korea," Gallant said. 

He's a proud Canadian. He's also a proud Korean curling coach. Gallant deflected much of the credit for this journey though. It was always about helping four women from a country who is only beginning to understand the game dream big — and spur on others in the country to do it too. 

"If this doesn't do it, I don't know what will."