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

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

Feb 20, 2018
Originally published on February 21, 2018 11:25 am

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.

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.

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 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

These Olympic Games have created a number of breakout stars, including the Garlic Girls. That's the nickname of the South Korean women's curling team whose members all come from the same garlic-producing hometown. NPR's Elise Hu has their story.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: This South Korean squad is on such a hot streak that no seat went unfilled today when they faced off against the U.S. Fans stood along the back walls and jammed into passageways.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

RICK PATZKE: I think they've figured out that they can yell and stomp and cheer and have a good time, so that's great to see.

HU: That's Rick Patzke. He's the head of USA Curling. He has watched these curling crowds grow along with the popularity of the South Korean team.

PATZKE: And they play with a lot of passion. You know, they're not robotic by any means. They're very technically sound. And I believe that comes, you know, in with their coaching and their ability to full-time be curlers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Go.

(CHEERING)

HU: All four curlers are named Kim - no relation - and all but one Garlic Girl has a food-related individual nickname, too. They base them on their favorite breakfast selections. The captain is called Yogurt. The others are Steak, Pancake, Cho-Cho and Sunny, short for sunny side up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Korean).

HU: The entire team comes from the same small city of 53,000, Uiseong in southern South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF STICKS CLATTERING)

HU: Today, inside the gym of the girls' old high school, extended family members, neighbors and former teachers crowded together to watch the game stream on a giant projection screen. Lee In-young is among them.

LEE IN-YOUNG: (Through interpreter) I saw the team taking their sticks for the first time when the curling team was first made in the school.

HU: As the principal of the high school a decade ago, she remembers today's Olympians staying late to practice after evening study hall.

LEE: (Through interpreter) And they were good-natured students, and they also studied very hard.

HU: Curling was unknown to most of the country until recently. South Korea didn't even have a team before the 2014 Olympics. But years ago, after the town of Uiseong opened a curling center, high school administrators saw an opportunity.

LEE: (Through interpreter) We canceled our basketball team that was here in the school, and we changed our school sports to curling.

HU: It paid off. The school produced the women's curling team that's now first-ranked at the Pyeongchang Olympics. The spotlight on the Garlic Girls is drawing in another generation of young curlers. Jeong Soobin is a student in Uiseong.

JEONG SOOBIN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: "I'm so proud of them," she says. "And since they're graduates of this high school, I feel like I have to follow in their footsteps." Their streak has continued.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The Republic of Korea, 9, United States of America, 6.

HU: They defeated the American women with some deft plays. It's still unclear how the winning streak will end. The South Korean curlers secured their place in the semifinals already, where the four best teams will compete for a medal. Their coach says instead of fixating on winning, they want to rewrite South Korea's curling history. With this Olympic run, their hometown will tell you these Garlic Girls already have. Elise Hu, NPR News, Gangneung, South Korea.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJ JAZZY JEFF SONG, "FOR DA LOVE OF DA GAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.