Curling: Ice queen determined to extend reign

Rhona Martin and the British curling team dream of winning more gold in Turin next month
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The Independent Online

In the wake of leading her curling team to victory at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics, to the delight of a home television audience of six million people, Rhona Martin declared: "I'm still a housewife and mother of two in a small village in Ayrshire. That will not change."

How wrong she was. Four years after the massive ballyhoo surrounding Britain's first gold medal at a Winter Olympic Games since Torvill and Dean in 1984 she has now moved from Dunlop, Ayrshire, to Ayr itself.

That apart, granted, the Girl Who Threw the Stone of Destiny seems much the same at 39 as she was four years ago when she held her nerve to produce the winning stone with the last delivery of an Olympic competition where Britain had seemed down and out after the qualifying stages.

The triumph of the four Scotswomen who carried Britain's cause at the Ogden Ice Rink made the front, back and every other page back home. Martin's brother, Neill Howie, hailed the victory as "the greatest sporting moment in the history of East Ayrshire". The Prime Minister went even further. "Not just the whole of Scotland, but the whole of Britain is really proud of them," declared Tony Blair.

Now Martin is preparing herself to defend that title in Turin next month with a restructured team that has arisen from a new squad selection process. Much has changed - but she is still the boss on the ice. And even though Britain's women are currently ranked only sixth in the world, dreams of further glory will persist.

"Salt Lake definitely feels like a long time ago," Martin recalled. "It was hard because we weren't used to the media at all. But it was great. And for long afterwards people want you to do things like opening fêtes or visiting schools. It's great that the kids can feel an Olympic gold medal - they get very excited about that.

"The summer afterwards we were all invited to Wimbledon. I always used to watch it on telly, but my mum has gone every year since 1982. It was quite something when I told her I was going in the Royal Box. We saw Tim Henman playing, and they introduced us to the crowd before the match.

"Winning in Salt Lake has given me the kind of opportunities I would never have had otherwise. I have been very busy this year as an ambassador for the London 2012 bid, which has meant going down to London a lot."

Martin's role as one of the sporting mentors for the Team B&Q scheme, which offers promising athletes a package of employment and training time, has brought her into contact with other Olympians such as Kelly Holmes and the man she describes as her sporting hero, Steven Redgrave.

"To meet him was fantastic," she says, with a rare giggle. "We saw him in Salt Lake after the medal ceremony. All of a sudden he was there saying, 'Congratulations Rhona', and I was thinking, 'Ah! This is Steven Redgrave talking to me!' "

Now Martin finds herself back in the limelight again - and it seems just as "weird" to her as it did previously. "Since the team was announced there's been quite a lot of interest," she said. "It's quite scary when everyone wants to speak to you."

Martin has arrived at the Turin Olympics via an entirely new selection system, the efficacy of which has yet to be fully borne out. Whereas in 2002 Britain picked the team which had ranked highest overall at European and World Championships in the preceding three years, this time around Mike Hay, the head coach for British curling since before the 2002 Games, has assembled a squad of 10 who have played, à la Chelsea under Claudio Ranieri, in rotation. Unlike Ranieri, however, Hay and the other selectors have decided upon a settled team for the main event, although the final positions still have to be determined.

What is certain is that Martin is the skip, even in a team that contains two other estimable skips in Kelly Wood, the current Scottish ladies champion, and Jackie Lockhart, who earned a world title just months after Martin's triumph at Salt Lake in what now stands as an annus mirabilis for British - in other words, Scottish - curling.

Hay, whose ex-wife Kirsty missed out on an Olympic medal by a matter of an inch or two in 1998, made the point by talking about the recent Olympic trials in Canada, where curling is a huge sport and more than 200,000 people attended the live event. Hay was with the team in the Ogden Ice rink when the great deed was done. It did not play hugely on United States television at the time - no US winner, you see - but it was not long before the team realised what effect they had had in Britain.

"We were told there was pandemonium back home," Hay recalled. "It was great to have between five million and six million people watching the sport, even though they probably didn't know what it was all about."

There have been no European or world triumphs since, as the traditionally stronger and bigger nations such as Canada, Switzerland and Sweden have re-exerted their positions. The latter nation look the most obvious of winners in Turin, given that they hold the world and European titles.

"We have to be a little bit realistic about what we can do this time," Hay said. "For the women to reach the semi-finals would be a great achievement."

Martin concurred with that view. "It hasn't been easy in recent years. A lot of the other teams have moved on, and they have been desperate to beat the Olympic champions as well. We've got a lot of talent in our team - it's a matter of getting the team right so we make ourselves as effective as possible.

"It was quite a shock to have three skips in the team. It should be a big help because of the vast experience we have - but once we start playing, everyone will have to do their job, and if you play second you have to play second. If we can get the dynamics right it should work out well.

"I am a little apprehensive about it because of the new selection system, but we have to go and do well. If we can reach the semi-finals it is anybody's game after that. It's a realistic ambition - but we will have to jump up a couple of places on our world ranking to do it."

The team should get a clearer indication of their prospects this week as they contest the prestigious Berne Ladies invitation in Switzerland, where all the leading Olympic contenders are due to take part.

The day after the Salt Lake victory, newspapers featured the Martin family - son Andrew, daughter Jennifer and husband Keith - on back or front pages. "The children sometimes get embarrassed when people come up to me and start talking about it," Martin said. "But I'm still their mum and they want tea on the table like everybody else."

There have been advantages to having a well-known mum, however. Andrew, a Rangers supporter, got to meet Alex McLeish and all the players at Ibrox, while Jennifer met the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne when she asked to be shown how to take part in curling by Martin at the Braehead rink while she was on tour here. The singer gave it a good go, apparently - but singing is likely to remain her career. Another treat for Jennifer was a visit to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen on her birthday - which happened to be the day Mum got her MBE along with the rest of the team - Fiona MacDonald, Janice Rankin and Debbie Knox, who has earned a place alongside her in the 2006 team.

If the post-Salt Lake celebrations plunged Martin into another world, she remained, as you would expect, entirely sensible about it. There was, despite some wild speculation, no dramatic effect on the sport domestically - although, as Martin points out doggedly, one new rink has been opened at Tunbridge Wells. Behold, the dawn of a new English curling age...

According to some reports, Martin said that she had been "panicking" before producing the climactic effort of the Olympic final which nudged the Swiss stone firmly out of the way before turning golden. She recalls no such worry.

"We had done a lot of psychology before the Olympics, and I was thinking as I prepared myself that it was just like any other stone. I never consciously thought, 'This is for the Olympic gold'. To have the chance of winning the event with the last stone was all I could have asked for. At the time, it was just routine. I'd thrown a lot harder shots in the round-robin matches, but no one was watching those."

It is likely that she will be scrutinised more closely as she gets down to work in Italy. It won't worry her one bit.

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