February 24, 2018 / 8:16 AM / 6 months ago

Olympics-Curling-Sth Koreans pray Garlic Girls can score crushing victory

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By Hyun Oh and Jane Chung

UISEONG/GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb 24 (Reuters) - N inety-two-year-old Kim Won-hee doesn't know much about the sport of curling, but she and millions of other South Koreans are counting on her granddaughter, skipper of the "Garlic Girls", to lead the nation to an historic gold medal on Sunday.

The nation has embraced its women's curling team like no other local athlete, inspired by their journey from a garlic-growing county to the pinnacle of the Winter Olympics, the first Asian team to make the sport's gold-medal playoff.

The Garlic Girls' skipper, Kim Eun-jung, 27, and her four teammates are famous for their girl-next-door looks, but the skip has her own special brand of celebrity -- thanks to a pair of Harry Potter spectacles and her death-stare concentration.

That steely determination seems to run in the family.

"She has to win the gold medal," her grandmother told Reuters Television in her home in central Uiseong, which has a banner over the main road reading: "We Support National Curling Player Kim Eun-jung"

"The gold medal is what we need," she stressed again, as she gripped a curling broom with the label "Team Kim". On her side table sits a picture of her granddaughter, also holding a curling broom, with her family in a garlic field.

The team face Sweden on Sunday in a playoff that is destined to be South Korea's biggest TV audience for curling and one of its largest for any moment of the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Four of the five team members grew up in garlic-growing Uiseong county, which decided a decade ago to build the country's first curling rink. The skipper and one of her teammates, Kim Yeong-mi, were close high-school friends who started curling together as an after-class activity.

Uiseong's early adoption of the sport has led to the Garlic Girls blazing a trail for curling, a sport born centuries ago in Scotland and which has now caught fire in South Korea.

Kim Eun-Jung's family still farms garlic and her uncle Kim Kwang-il remembers her as a girl who worked hard at school, helped tend the fields and threw herself into curling.

"I'm very proud and thankful. She's a hard working girl in everything she does -- studying, training, helping her family on the field," the uncle said as he stood in a field where green garlic sprouts were partly covered against the winter cold.

"I feel grateful but also I feel for her because of all the hard work she puts in."

At Uiseong Girls High School, alma mater for four of the Garlic Girls, more than 300 fans and a scrum of local media gathered before a big screen on Friday night to watch the team's nail-biting victory against Japan.

South Korea has produced many world-class athletes from women's golfer Pak Se-ri to figure skater Kim Yuna, but few have come from as far left field as the Garlic Girls.

Skipper Kim Eun-jung said Yuna was one of her inspirations to turn her fun pastime into an Olympic pursuit.

"I still remember the moment when I watched Kim Yuna performing at the Vancouver Olympics while I was doing curling training," she told reporters after the victory against Japan.

"Back then I just thought what it would be like competing in the Olympics for me."

Her grandmother still doesn't understand the sport well but is very proud of her famous youngster.

"At first I didn't even know what curling was but her parents were busy giving her rides there (to the rink) and back and she kept coming back with medals, but I couldn't understand what it was. Granny didn't know.

"I still don't understand what they are doing." (Additonal reporting by Lucien Libert; Editing by Mark Bendeich)

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