Winter Olympics: McMillan a stone's throw from fulfilment

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Hammy McMillan is the most successful British curler in modern history but has never attended curling's most illustrious fixture. We are not talking here about the Olympics – the genial 38year-old hotel manager has represented Britain twice before for demonstration purposes, at Calgary in 1988 and Albertville in 1992, and will spearhead the British challenge in the men's event at Salt Lake City, which starts today. And we are not talking about major championships. He is a former world champion, five-times European champion and seven-times Scottish champion.

The one event he has never attended is the Grand Match, a competition for which the annual draw is made every November but which rarely ever actually takes place. Dating back to 1847, it simultaneously pits 300 teams from the north of Scotland against 300 from the south but can only go ahead when a sufficiently large expanse of Scottish water freezes to a depth of seven inches to accommodate their weight.

The last staging was in 1979 on Lake Menteith (Scotland's only lake: for the record, the rest are lochs) and McMillan, a teenager at school in Edinburgh at the time, missed out. When Jack Frost arrives, timing is everything and he could not make it. Circumstances and fate have been similarly unhelpful in his quest for Olympic success, although that, he hopes, is about to change.

There was never much doubt that McMillan would become a curler. His home town, Stranraer, lies just down Scotland's west coast from the Ailsa Craig, an imposing lump of an island where much of the dense granite used in curling stones worldwide is quarried. The surrounding region is steeped in a rich curling heritage dating back to the 16th century.

McMillan's father – Hammy Snr, short for Hamilton in both cases – and mother, Janet, have also always been keen curlers. Both have played for Scotland and both have won titles at national level.

McMillan Jnr also had another head start in his sport. His childhood home had its own curling rink. McMillan Jnr takes up the story. "In 1961, my father was working in Canada, where he'd been for 11 years. Friends back in Stranraer let him know that the North West Castle, which was built in 1820 for the Arctic explorer, Sir John Ross, was up for sale. He came back, bought it and opened his first hotel." The family now owns a small chain of hotels. McMillan Jnr is the manager of the North West Castle, where we meet.

"In 1970 there was talk of a rink being built in Newton Stewart but the local curlers persuaded father to have a rink in the hotel instead. They thought it would be a good idea to keep the hotel busy in winter." That year the Castle became the world's first hotel with its own indoor curling rink. "I was brought up with it," McMillan says. "Instead of kicking a football, I was in here throwing stones. When I came home from school I'd play whenever the ice was free."

Despite a lexicon all of its own, McMillan's sport is simple to understand, if not to play. There are four players on each team (or "rink"). The object is to "throw" (actually slide) a 42lb "stone" (a lump of rounded and polished granite with a handle) across a "sheet" (of ice) towards a series of concentric rings (known as the "house"), aiming for the centre, or "tee".

Team members throw in a set order, with the "lead" first, followed by the "second", "vice-skip" and "skip". The skip calls all the shots and the non-throwing members "sweep" the ice with modified brooms (they actually frantically brush it to produce complicated reactions between the condensation on the stone and the "sheet") to direct the stones' movements. The phrase "skip to the rink, throw stones at the house," is thus a job description as opposed to a statement of intent to cause vandalism.

Each player throws two stones per end and the team scores one point for each stone that is closer to the tee than their opponents' best stone. Scoring is done when all 16 stones are thrown. There are 10 ends in a game.

Despite all McMillan's success, Olympic honours have never been among them. In 1988, at the demonstration event in Calgary, he was a member, but not the skip, of the British rink. They had won silver at the 1986 World Championships, but failed to win a single game of their 10 at the Games. "We weren't attacking enough," McMillan says. "So I started skipping myself."

This move led McMillan to the 1989 European title, then a first Scottish title as skip, in 1992, and then a World Championship silver the same year.

So to the 1992 Albertville Games, where, in difficult conditions – the ice plant breaks down and two sheets were unplayable – McMillan's rink could manage no better than fifth. Worse was to follow in the run-up to the Nagano Games of 1998, by which time curling was a full medal sport.

McMillan's rink had gone into the Olympic qualifying process on the back of three straight European titles between 1994 and 1996 and as the hot favourites to represent Britain. But, in the final qualifier, they lost out to Douglas Dryburgh, an RAF squadron leader from Aviemore, who took his own rink to Japan instead and finished well out of the medals.

McMillan went to the Games, but only as a commentator. "It was hard," he said, "working for the BBC and Grandstand knowing I should have been there playing." In the wake of the Nagano, he was despondent.

"I was all for packing it in," he says. He was persuaded back by his team-mates, however, and in 1999, in New Brunswick, he skipped them to the World Championship gold medal. "We had a bit of a dip in 2000," he says. "We were desperate to get to the World Championships in Glasgow but to be honest the practice wasn't done. We lost our title. But we've worked hard for the Olympics and we're playing as well as we have."

For Salt Lake City, Britain has a men's and women's squad entered. McMillan's rink – two accountants, Warwick Smith and Ewan MacDonald, a financier, Peter Loudon, and a farmer, Norman Brown, make up the squad – are rated as being "medal zoners", or top-six finishers at least, by the British Olympic Association.

The curling events will each be contested by 10 nations. Canada are the favourites in the men's. "For six months of the year, all they've got is ice," says McMillan. Six other nations, including Britain, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, the United States and Finland, will be realistic challengers for medals. The Germans, the French and the Danish make up the field. A round-robin phase, in which McMillan's rink face Canada and Sweden in their first two games, will lead to four qualifiers for the semi-finals. The winners will play for gold, the losers for bronze.

"I'll be disappointed if we don't get a medal," McMillan says. "Not being on the podium is not a nice feeling. We've worked hard and if we can play to our ability we can do it." He adds that much will depend on what fate throws up on any given day. "Curling is a very slippery game," he muses, using his adjective strictly metaphorically. "One mistake and you're history."

And in curling's history, as we already know, chances of a big one don't come round too often.