Garlic Girls Take Over the Olympics, and Their Hometown Is Loving It

They came from all corners of Uiseong County. They brought homemade signs, waved flags and screamed for every shot. They came to celebrate four young women from this farming community who have originated as the most unexpected (and most gloriously bespectacled) stars of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

On Tuesday afternoon, townspeople collected inside the gymnasium here at Uiseong Girls High School to root for the South Korean women’s curling team, whose match against the United States was shown on a massive screen as an M.C. leaned into a microphone and banged on a drum.

“I skip dinner whenever they’re playing,” said Chung Poong-ja, 75, who danced on the gym floor once the South Koreans sealed their victory against the Americans. “My focus needs to be on the match.”

Kim Sung-hee, 67, said, “I lost my voice from cheering so hard.”

It was the largest, loudest party in the province, and for good reason: The team’s top four players grew up in this small city of about 54,000 people and graduated from this high school. Now, thanks to a fanciful run at the Olympics being held in Pyeongchang, about 80 miles to the north, the team — dubbed the Garlic Girls by the Korean press, owing to the region’s production of garlic — seems on the cusp of international celebrity.

Never mind that the Garlic Girls, with their dominant record in pool play, have vaulted themselves into medal position in a sport that is still foreign to most South Koreans.

Curling is a game played on a sheet of ice in which the athletes use brooms to guide polished granite rocks toward a target. Its roots date to 16th-century Scotland.

But it was not until 2006 that one of South Korea’s first curling facilities was built — here in Uiseong. A former government official had seen the sport while traveling in Canada and thought it would bid to a wide range of people. So the county cobbled together the funds to build the Gyeongbuk Uiseong Curling Centre.

Kim Joo-soo, the present county mayor, said in an interview at his office that four friends (including two sisters) from Uiseong Girls High School soon became regulars. They thought it was a fun after-school activity.

Nobody knew they would become Olympians.

“They’re sisters and they’re friends,” Kim said, “so their communication is so essential. You can tell that teamwork is a big factor in their success.”

Another factor: the sterling play of Kim Eun-jung, 27, who goes by the nickname Annie and operates as the team’s skip, which means she orchestrates the team’s strategy and throws the most essential shots. Some of those shots already have led the South Koreans past powerhouses like Canada, Switzerland and Britain, sealing a berth in Friday’s semifinals.

Kim Eun-jung, who wears eyeglasses that have become the most iconic fashion accessory at the Games, plays with a sort of poker-faced intensity that has made for internet memes. But her teammates, who have fun nicknames like Steak, Sunny and Pancake, have become nearly as recognizable to a growing number of fans across the country. They are Kim Kyeong-ae, 24, and Kim Yeong-mi, 26, who are sisters; and Kim Seon-yeong, 24. A fifth player, Kim Chohi, is the team’s alternate. (Her nickname is Cookie.)

Their path to Olympic stardom was not without obstacles. In recent years, the Korean curling federation was roiled by a sexual abuse case that involved a former coach and by the misappropriation of training funds. But the players on the present team persevered, and banners featuring their faces and the Olympic rings are now scattered across Uiseong.

“They’re inspiring a lot of young kids to participate in winter sports, and not just curling,” said Do Ki-min, 29, who got an excused absence from work at the county office so he could watch Tuesday’s match at the high school. “My boss is here, too.”

Kim Sung-hee, the woman who lost her voice from cheering too hard, said she was from the same neighborhood as the two sisters on the team. She had been watching their matches at a community center, she said. But as the wins kept piling up, it was beginning to get pretty crowded.

Ahead of Tuesday’s match, an announcement was posted on the county’s official website that a viewing party would be held at the high school. Word spread around the county. Lee Jung-yong, an actor and entertainer from Seoul, was brought in to rev up the crowd — but that hardly seemed necessary.

As Kim Sung-hee watched Kim Eun-jung and her teammates rough up the Americans, she cited one other probable reason for the team’s success.

“It’s definitely the power of the garlic,” she said. “It’s the healthiest food in the world.”

The region is known for its garlic. Cartoon garlic bulbs smile from billboards. Garlic statues dot the countryside. Kim Joo-soo, the mayor, deemed it the finest garlic in the world.

“We think so,” he said.

It is all because of a volcano that erupted 70 million years ago, he said, and left ash that enriched the soil.


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