Olympics: 'National heroes? Don't be daft - we're just people who like our sport'

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The Independent Online

They never expected anything like this. They went out to Salt Lake City as unknowns – a recruitment adviser, a customer services rep, a bank worker, the assistant manager of a debt-recovery firm – but they are returning as national heroines. And somewhat bewildered ones.

Yesterday, as the nation was celebrating Britain's first gold medal in the Winter Olympics for 18 years – the last one was awarded to Torvill and Dean in 1984 – the four modest Scottish women who took the top prize for the obscure sport of curling were trying to come to terms with the measure of their achievement. Meanwhile, their husbands were back home in Scotland preparing fish fingers for the kids.

The contrast between the national euphoria at their success and the unassuming character of the foursome – skipper Rhona Martin, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Rankin and Debbie Knox – was marked in almost every aspect of the response of the women and their families back home. "Rhona Martin has written herself into British sporting history today," proclaimed Britain's Olympic Chef de Mission, Simon Clegg, pointing out that the team captain had not played a single shot wrong throughout the game.

Mrs Martin herself, on the other hand, was consumed by matters far more technical in commenting on the team's victory. "I was just panicking on the last stone," she mused. "I knew it would come off the inside but it also had to be dead roll weight ... We had to keep it a close game to have a chance and we were always in control – even when we lost the ninth, we knew it wasn't a disaster as we had the hammer coming home."

But if the analysis was impenetrable to the 12 million people who watched her last decisive shot – an audience greater than even the number who voted in that other television extravaganza, Pop Idols – the excitement was all too easy to share.

The nation's politicians knew that and queued up eagerly to share in the women's reflected glory. "I'm well aware that the interest in Scotland today is not about my visit," quipped Tony Blair as he toured a biotechnology research firm. "It was wonderful, exciting, thrilling and a brilliant performance, and well done to all the Scots who made up the British team. Not just the whole of Scotland but the whole of Britain is really proud of them."

The Leader of the Opposition was elbowing in on the act too. "As a Scot," said Iain Duncan Smith, "I am especially pleased about their achievement. [They] have given everyone in Britain a boost by their marvellous display of skill, courage and the coolest of nerves."

The Secretary of State for Scotland, Helen Liddell, congratulated the Olympic champions and invited them to be guests of honour at a reception for women at Edinburgh Castle. The leader of the Scottish National Party, John Swinney, said: "They have been great ambassadors for their home country." His idea of their home country was perhaps not the same as those who had regarded the women as the Great Britain team.

There was something far more engaging about the scale of the response in the women's home towns. The victory was "the greatest sporting moment in the history of East Ayrshire", said Rhona Martin's brother, Neill Howie.

At Lochgelly West school in Fife, the headmistress arranged an award ceremony for Anna and Beth Knox, the five-year-old twin daughters of gold medallist Debbie Knox, presenting them with flowers and a medal round their necks for their mother's achievement – and laying on a video of the winning game on the assumption that it was on too late for most of their classmates.

It all seemed apt for a sport like curling, of which most people had only vaguely heard until this week. In Scotland the game is played by a mere 30,000 enthusiasts on just 30 rinks. (There are none at all in England). Which is what you might expect from a pastime that apparently started in the early 16th century when Scottish farmers used to throw stones across ice and frozen rivers during the winter months, and whose idea of refinement was to insert a bit of metal into the stone to make it easier to control.

Since then, of course, curling has gained huge popularity in Sweden, Germany, Canada and Switzerland. In the past five years it has even taken off in South Korea and Japan, which has imported more than 100 Canadian curling professionals to improve national techniques. Around the world about two million curlers now take regularly to the ice. But even though a certain amount of technology has entered the game – players need to wear special shoes, one of which has a thick rubber sole, while the other shoe has a quarter-inch thick layer of Teflon – the stones are still made of solid granite. And John Stevenson, who helped train the Olympic-winning captain at Greenacres Curling Club in Howwood, East Renfrewshire, was happily reminiscing yesterday about how it cost Rhona just 50p a session when she began her training.

All of which explains why Mrs Martin was taken aback when her husband told her on the phone about the level of interest back home. "I was telling her people were portraying her as a national heroine," he recounted yesterday, "and she said, 'don't be daft, I am someone who just enjoys my sport'."

Back in the US last night his wife continued to protest along similar lines when asked how her success would change her life. "I'm still a housewife and mother of two in a small village in Ayrshire. That will not change," she said. "It's a small village. I'm sure we'll manage."

Awaiting her will be the hardest evidence of her triumph. The supermarket chain Safeway has announced that it hopes to sign up the Olympic medallists to promote a floor cleaner. One of the unique features of curling is the use of sweeping – when a player's team-mates brush the ice in front of the sliding stone to allow it to go further. Effective sweeping – which can lengthen a stone's journey by more than 10 feet and determine its final destination – is a function of judgement and experience. This means, Safeway's marketing people have announced, with what passes for a sense of humour in the world of retail, that the team have all the skills necessary to test Safeway's own-brand Vecta product.

A supermarket spokesman said: "The scrubbing movement by the team members is the ideal way to test kitchen and bathroom floor cleaner. We feel the girls could teach us a thing or two about scrubbing." Given the down-to-earth nature of the response of the gold medallists to their success so far, they may have more to teach the rest of us than just that.

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