It was a rise as improbable as any at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics -- the South Korean women's curling team coming out of blue and winning silver.
When the eighth-ranked team defeated world No. 1 Canada 8-6 in its first round robin session on Feb. 15, hardly anyone made much of it. Sure, Canada had run the table to win the 2017 world championship, but nobody could keep winning forever and a loss here and there would be par for the course at the Olympics.
Of course, South Korea lost its very next match later the same day, with Japan coming out on top 7-5. That win over Canada was a fluke for South Korea, right?
No. Something funny happened. South Korea reeled off seven straight wins to earn top seed in the round robin play and clinch a berth in the semifinals before anyone else. The winning streak reached eight with an 8-7 win over Japan in the semis.
|South Korea`s coach hugs player Kim Yeong-mi after the final game against Sweden on Feb. 25 (Yonhap)|
The team's inexorable run ended with an 8-3 loss to Sweden in Sunday's gold medal match at Gangneung Curling Centre, but the loss did little to diminish the impact the team made on the sport during the Olympics. The quartet of Kim Eun-jung, Kim Yeong-mi, Kim Seon-yeong and Kim Kyeong-ae turned curling into must-see TV.
National Olympic broadcasters often cut away from other sports to show these curlers at work.
With increased exposure to a wider audience, the four Kims -- only two of whom are related -- became cult heroes of a sort.
Of the bunch, Kim Eun-jung, as the skip, got the majority of air time and the spotlight. The bespectacled one inspired memes for her uncanny, almost bemused ability to keep a stony face through the ups and downs of matches. Kim's screams of "Yeong-mi" to get her teammate to sweep harder made Kim Yeong-mi, the team's lead, a household name. By midway through the team's winning streak, social media was abuzz with videos of people sweeping the floor of their homes with mops in front of a moving, robotic vacuum cleaners.
Quite simply, curling has never been more popular in South Korea than it is today. And this is all thanks to four women who only picked up curling as their after-school activity.
Kim Yeong-mi and Kim Kyeong-ae are sisters. Kim Eun-jung and Kim Yeong-mi are friends, while Kim Kyeong-ae and Kim Seon-yeong also go back a few years. They all graduated from the same high school in Euiseong, 330 kilometers south of Seoul. It's a town famous for its garlic production, which earned the curling quartet the nickname, "Garlic Girls."
|Sisters Kim Yeong-mi and Kim Kyeong-ae (Yonhap)|
Head coach Kim Min-jung previously said the moniker didn't sound so flattering for young women in their 20s and they would prefer to be simply called Team Kim.
No matter what the nickname, these four curlers have certainly earned something -- the respect of a nation that had never watched curling with as much interest as it did over the past two weeks.
Another fascinating fact about the team's march to the podium was that all curlers handed in their cell phones before the Olympics so they could cut themselves off from the outside world and stay focused on the competition.
During the Olympics, they claimed to have no idea of their meteoric rise to stardom because they weren't watching television or going online to read the news.
Even after receiving their silver medals, the curlers still hadn't gotten their phones back. And Kim Eun-jung said she only got a vague idea of how popular her team had become because the cheers had gotten louder as the competition wore on.
"I really don't know how famous we are, but I could feel that the fans were a lot more raucous today than they were in our first match," she said. "We've received letters and gifts from our fans, and we really appreciate that. Our popularity is one thing, and we're just grateful that so many people have taken interest in curling." (Yonhap)