SEOUL (Reuters) - Clasping the treasured broom she used to reach the Sochi Games, Shin Mi-sung smiles as she remembers the ridicule and embarrassment she has had to endure as part of South Korea’s Olympic curling team.
“I used to take the subway holding this broom in my hand and people would think I was a window cleaner or a street sweeper,” Shin told Reuters in an interview.
At 35 the eldest of Korea’s five-woman team headed to Sochi for the February 7-23 Games, Shin recalls one moment when a dire lack of funding forced them to take extreme measures.
“Professional curlers don’t re-use the brush pads but we had to wash ours over and over again, until too much lint built up and made them completely unusable,” she said, as the hint of a smile began to break through.
“One time at an international match, we saw our competitors throw away their brush pads after using them only once. So we picked them out of the trash when no one was watching, washed them and used them in the next game,” she said through fits of laughter.
“At that time we were just so happy to get virtually brand-new pads for free. I guess we couldn’t afford to feel embarrassed back then.”
However, the days when Shin and team mates Kim Ji-sun, Lee Seul-bee, Gim Un-chi and Um Min-ji have to go rifling through garbage for equipment are long gone.
Finishing in the top four at the World Women’s Curling Championships in Canada in March last year not only gave Korea enough points for an Olympic berth, it also brought much-needed funding and, perhaps more importantly, recognition.
With South Korea’s Pyeongchang set to host the Winter Games in 2018, that support seems set to continue for years to come.
Coach Chung Young-sup told Reuters that nothing was the same after that. “Everything flipped upside down.”
It was then that the governor of their home province decided to create a more professional curling set-up, providing more money, insurance and all the other perks enjoyed by government employees.
“When we returned, Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo created a curling team and provided a vehicle, a house near the training centre and all the expenses for overseas training.
“Not long after that, Korea’s biggest retail conglomerate Shinsegae pledged 10 billion won until 2018 for the development of Korean curling and launched the Shinsegae-Emart National Curling Competition, which started in early October.
“There’s been such a big change, the difference is tangible,” Chung chuckled.
Despite the team garnering the points to earn South Korea a berth in Sochi, they then had to actually win the national team tryouts in April for the right to represent the country in its Olympic curling debut.
“Ironically, they seemed more nervous during the national team selection process,” said assistant coach Choi Min-suk, who also plays for men’s national team. “They were afraid to lose the ticket (to Sochi) that they earned themselves.”
While the new-found prosperity has made things easier, the team constantly remind themselves of the struggles that forged their bond, the times they had to swallow their pride and put up with ridicule, or worse, abject indifference, from the public.
“What we were most envious of other players during international games was that they stayed in a hotel and had meals already made for them,” said skip Kim Ji-sun.
“We, on the other hand, had to homestay and cooked meals by ourselves while practicing just as much, if not more than them.
“Some still belittle the sport, calling it just ‘sweeping the ice’, but I’m not offended at all. It would be better if they used the term ‘curling’ but at least they know what we do and how we do it,” said the 26-year-old, who married Chinese national team curler Xu Xiaoming in May.
“We are aiming for the podium at the Olympic Games, maybe the top spot. We are literally grinding our teeth in order to live up to the expectation,” she said with determination.
With the Sochi Games fast approaching, the team are practicing at Taeneung National Training Centre but despite being Olympic representatives they have to share the ice with other local curlers and have mock games with high school teams.
Whenever the players appear to be taking their change in fortunes for granted, assistant coach Choi keeps their feet on the ice.
“This is the best conditions we’ve ever had,” he shouts.
“Remember where we came from!”
Editing by Peter Rutherford