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The 'Garlic Girls,' South Korea's Curlers, Are A Surprise Olympics Sensation

Eun Jung Kim delivers a stone between Yeong Mi Kim and Seon Yeong Kim during their competition against Switzerland on Friday.
Eun Jung Kim delivers a stone between Yeong Mi Kim and Seon Yeong Kim during their competition against Switzerland on Friday.

The surprise winning streak of South Korea's women's curling team has put it in the spotlight and made the players the pride of new curling fans across the Pyeongchang Olympics host country. Now ranked first, the team has a 6 to 1 win-loss record.

It also has a catchy nickname — the "Garlic Girls," after their garlic-producing hometown — and its members have mostly food-inspired individual nicknames. The captain, Eun Jung Kim, is "Yogurt," and her teammates are "Pancake," "Steak," "Cho-Cho" and "Sunny," short for sunny side-up.

The entire team hails from Uiseong, a town in southern South Korea. On Tuesday in the town, their old neighbors, friends and teachers gathered in the gymnasium at the teammates' former high school to watch and cheer their semifinals-clinching victory in Gangneung.

At the curling center in Gangneung, where the Garlic Girls were facing off against the United States, no seat went unfilled. Fans stood along the back walls and jammed into passageways, breaking into chants whenever the South Koreans scored.

"I think they figured out they can yell and stomp and cheer and have a great time, so that's great to see," said Rick Patzke, CEO of USA Curling. He has watched the curling crowds grow along with the popularity of the South Korean team during these Winter Games.

"They play with a lot of passion. They're not robotic by any means; they're very technically sound and I believe that comes with their coaching and their ability to full-time be curlers," he says.

(From left) Teammates Yeong Mi Kim, Kyeong Ae Kim, Eun Jung Kim and Seon Yeong Kim talk together during a women's curling round robin at the Winter Olympics on Friday.
Maddie Meyer / Getty Images
(From left) Teammates Yeong Mi Kim, Kyeong Ae Kim, Eun Jung Kim and Seon Yeong Kim talk together during a women's curling round robin at the Winter Olympics on Friday.

All four curlers share the same surname, Kim; two are sisters. Their town's mayor decided more than a decade ago to use government funds to build a curling center in hopes of hosting tournaments and becoming a future curling destination. The Uiseong Girls High School, where today's Olympians were students, teamed up with the local government to support the sport.

"We canceled our basketball team that was here in the school and changed our school sport to curling," says former principal Lee In-young.

Residents of Uiseong gathered in the high school gym to cheer the women's curling team on Tuesday.
Se Eun Gong / NPR
Residents of Uiseong gathered in the high school gym to cheer the women's curling team on Tuesday.

Curling was so unknown to South Korea that the country didn't even have a team until the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Today, Uiseong is on the map for producing Olympic curlers as well as garlic.

"I saw the team taking their sticks for the first time when the curling team was first made in the school," Lee recalls. "And they were good-natured students and they also studied very hard."

The current spotlight on the Garlic Girls is helping draw in another generation of young curlers.

"I'm so proud of them. And since they're graduates of this high school, I feel like I have to follow in their footsteps," says Jeong Soobin, a student in Uiseong.

It's still unclear how this winning streak will end. In the semifinals, the four best teams will compete for a medal. Their coach says instead of fixating on winning, the Garlic Girls want to rewrite South Korea's curling history. With this Olympic run, their hometown thinks they already have.

Seoul producer Se Eun Gong reported from Uiseong.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.