Curious sport, curling, engendering great passion among its devotees while to outsiders it can't fail to resemble bowls on ice, though some say it's all in the mind, a sort of refrigerated chess. "Scotland's ain game," they call it there, unsurprisingly, as all 10 curlers representing Britain in the current Winter Olympics are as Caledonian as the canal.
Bloody-minded the Scots may be about kicking a football for Team GB in London's Olympics two years hence but in Vancouver, as in Salt Lake City eight years ago, it will be a case of Tartan home-brew should either of the stones-and-broom brigades slide and sweep their way to the podium.
It was at Ogden, just outside the Mormon citadel of the United States, that the exploits of the chirpy Ayrshire village housewife Rhona Martin and her golden girls attracted the biggest TV audience for a Winter Games here since Torvill and Dean boleroed their way to perfection.
Martin was the woman who "threw the stone of destiny" which kept British viewers enthralled in the early hours. Now the 43-year-old mother of two is off the ice and commentating on the progress of her young successor as skip of the women's team, Eve Muirhead, a 19-year-old blonde who has the Olympic rings tattooed on her lower back, plays the bagpipes and is a two-handicap golfer.
Muirhead was chosen ahead of the likes of Jackie Lockhart, a veteran of 30 years' experience and three Olympic Games. The Perthshire farmer's daughter comes from a family of curlers. She could have been on a sports scholarship in the United States but instead she chose curling, to which her father Gordon introduced her as a nine-year-old, and she has won the World Junior Championships for the past three years. She admits to being surprised at being selected as skip. "But if you're good enough, you're old enough," she says.
Martin may have made curling compelling viewing but Muirhead has given it a different, somewhat racier edge, as she demonstrated in Vancouver last week by leading the team to wins over the world champions China and European champions Germany to put GB within sight of the semi-finals. She says: "Rhona's gold was such a fantastic moment for the sport and a real inspiration for myself. I know her well because she is now the junior national coach and worked with us at the last World Junior Championships. She's always there if you need to speak to her and has been very helpful. I was 11 when I watched on TV when she won the gold medal. From then on, all I wanted to do was emulate her.
"My dad was a curler – he's got two silver medals from World Championships – and having seen so much of the sport as a youngster, you just want to go out on the ice and have a go yourself. Curling may not look the most athletic of sports but it does mean you have to train full-time and do a lot of gym work and stretching exercises. A lot of people don't realise just how fit you need to be and you have to play two or three games a day so the stamina required is massive, and you have to be mentally fit too, always alert. Being fit both in mind and body is crucial.
"We've had a pretty good season in championship events, three first places, a second and three thirds. We ended up top in the European rankings and fourth in the world so we are definitely in a podium position."
Muirhead was selected by the Scottish Institute of Sport for funding and has been full-time ever since, although she could have taken up offers of a US scholarship. "But if I'd gone, I felt my curling would have been goosed."
She doesn't have a boyfriend, she says, because "when you devote yourself to curling as I do, you have to sacrifice your social life, it's a full-time job."
She works closely with David Murdoch, who skips the men's team – the current world champions – and he says admiringly of her: "She has a huge amount of talent and confidence and is a good leader. As a skip you lead the team and dictate play, controlling the tactics. Also you have the responsibility of playing the last shots of each end of the game."
In a sport which has two million participants, 1.8 million of them from Canada, where curling is as big on TV as football is here, Scotland has 25,000 registered competitors, although an estimated 40,000 actually play. It's called curling because that's what the 44lb stone, with its kettle-like handle, actually does on the ice, spinning one way or the other as it is propelled the 146ft towards the bullseye target two feet in diameter, aided by the furious swishing brush-strokes which make for a smoother, speedier passage.
To the uninitiated the brooms look like squeegee mops but to the curler they are as vital as a golfer's putter. The only serious money in curling is in the stones, hewn from the rare, blue-toned granite of the volcanic Ailsa Craig, which on a clear day looms cone-shaped 11 miles off the Ayrshire coast. They cost £1,000 a pair to make, though they last for 50 years.
Both Muirhead's women and Murdoch's men have taken their own "mops" with them. Buckets will also be quickly provided should champagne be called for again. There will be no shortage of ice.
She has exceptional talent – and that vital will to win
Message from an icon: Rhona Martin
Eve is a very talented individual with a mature head on young shoulders. I've known her for a few years and was her coach at the world juniors last year, when she showed that, though young to have the responsibility as skip, she carries it well. She calls a great game, is very determined and the team will have great faith in her because she has that will to win.
She and the team have a very good chance of a medal, there is great experience there and they've had a lot of time together which helps enormously. Also they are very well prepared.
I think Eve will rely a lot on Jackie Lockhart, who has been in several Olympics, but my advice to her would be to enjoy the experience because this could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. But when you are curling you just focus 100 per cent.
Actually Eve has never really directly asked me for advice and she probably never will – I don't think she needs to. It's phenomenal the knowledge she has of the sport. From the moment she turned up at the world juniors, you knew she had exceptional talent – and that vital will to win.
Nothing will faze her. She has no fears about making the big shots. Sometimes you go for the safe option but no, she'll go for the big one. And guess what? She'll make it.
I just hope that she and the team can have the sort of success we had in Salt Lake because the whole profile of curling was raised and we no longer get those snide comments about curling your hair and sweeping the floors. The TV coverage we got was fantastic and it demonstrated that this is a serious sport.
I think people now know what it is all about. It has even taken off a bit in England – I believe there is a rink in Tunbridge Wells. And who knows? If we can come back with another medal or two, there may be more. The men's team have got a great chance too, I hope all the hard work both teams have done will pay off.
Rhona Martin was skip of the 2002 Olympic gold medal-winning GB women's team. She is an elite coach for UK Sport and Scotland's national junior coach. She is commentating on the curling events in Vancouver for the BBC
British Olympic Association
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