GANGNEUNG, South Korea — South Korea was beaten by Sweden, 8-3, in the women’s curling gold medal match at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Sunday.
It might not have been the result many here dreamed of, but the team, which has become known these days as the “Garlic Girls,” was hardly a disappointment in the host country. In fact, the silver medal exceeded the hosts’ most fanciful expectations.
“This team has been the hope of South Korea,” said Kim Da-Jeong, a 25-year-old student — about the same age as the team members — who had traveled from Bucheon, south of Seoul, for Sunday’s final. “I’m still so inspired by them. This is a very amazing competition because it’s the first time South Korea has won a medal in curling.”
Until this month, the sport was barely known to many South Koreans.
The team qualified for the Sochi Games in 2014 but failed to advance out of round-robin play, winning just three of nine matches. This time around, it was not expected to be much better.
Then, in a shocking turn of events, the South Korean team beat top-ranked Canada in its first match.
South Korea suddenly started paying attention. The team quickly earned its nickname of the “Garlic Girls” — its top four players all hail from the farming region of Uiseong, known for producing garlic.
The “Garlic Girls” prefer to be known as “Team Kim.” They’re all called Kim, Korea’s most common surname. Even the coach. For that reason, the women, all in their mid-20s, have given themselves nicknames based on their favorite breakfasts.
Skip Kim Eun-Jung is known as “Annie” after a brand of yogurt. Kim Kyeong-ae goes by “Steak,” and sister Kim Young-mi is “Pancake.” Then there are Kim Seon-yeong, called “Sunny,” short for sunny-side-up eggs, and Kim Cho-hi, named “Chocho” for a type of cookie.
After that early win, the team lost to archrival Japan, 7-5, in pool play — then never lost again until Sunday. It avenged the loss to Japan in the semifinals, 8-7, to become the first Asian country to make it to the curling finals.
Even as a controversial North Korean delegation crossed the border into South Korea for the Closing Ceremonies, the women’s curling team led the news.
Crowds of locals poured into a gym in Uiseong, population 53,000, to cheer on their hometown heroes.
South Korea got its first curling center — built in Uiseong, thanks to a local enthusiast — in 1988.
Local students started to play after school. Two friends from Uiseong Women's High School — Annie and Pancake — started to play. Then Pancake’s sister, Steak, took it up and eventually brought in her friend Sunny.
But curling remained a niche sport in a rural backwater.
During these Olympics, Team Kim has taken the country by storm, achieving a level of celebrity usually associated with K-pop stars.
Koreans have made movie-style posters with their faces and the word “Curling” as the film title. They have recorded homemade curling videos that feature robot vacuum cleaners and brooms.
Yelling “Young-mi! “Young-mi!,” as skip “Annie” Kim yells at the lead sweeper, with varying levels of urgency, has become a national chant of support for the team.
The bespectacled skip in particular has become a cult hero. There are Internet memes devoted to her and her steely focus, including one that shows her poker face with a variety of emotions listed as captions — when she’s playing well, when she’s not playing well, when the opponents are playing well, when the opponents are not playing well. All with the same intense expression.
But the women of Team Kim didn’t even know how famous they were. They handed in their phones for the duration of these Games and limited the TV they watched.
Another Internet meme shows skip Kim Eun-Jung walking right by a line of microphones, not realizing they’re all waiting for her, and having to be pulled back to them.
Along the way, South Korea’s interest in curling has skyrocketed, and so has Team Kim’s fan base. Crowds have shown up at matches with homemade signs, cheering “Young-mi! Young-mi!” and “Fighting!” a Korean cheer of encouragement.
“There was quite a lot of pressure because we were not used to playing games with big crowds,” Annie said after one of the team’s early matches. But the team learned to concentrate amid the cacophony, and Korean supporters learned the rules.
“With this huge support,” the skip said, “I thought there’s nothing we can’t do.”
After the match Sunday, the team walked out of the stadium to huge cheers from the home crowd.
If the “Garlic Girls” were surprised to get to the finals, just imagine how surprised they were when they turned on their cellphones.
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