It may be only 12 years ago, but what a difference an injection of youth and money can make in a sport. In 2002, six million Britons stayed up into the wee small hours to watch Rhona Martin (now reverting to her maiden name of Howie) and her curling team – a group of thirtysomething amateurs – beat Switzerland to win Olympic gold at Salt Lake City to the surprise of everybody, including themselves.
Next month in Sochi, however, her successor as skip of Team GB, Eve Muirhead, will lead a superfit team of professional sportswomen with an average age of only 23 who are part of a programme that has received £5million in funding since Vancouver 2010.
The young women are considered the UK’s best chance of a gold medal at the Winter Games and should Muirhead emulate Martin’s achievements by delivering her own “stone of destiny” in the final at the Ice Cube arena in Sochi on 20 February, it’s unlikely anyone will condescendingly describe their efforts as “a bunch of housewives with brooms sweeping their way to victory”.
No one is better placed than Howie, 47, to see how much the sport has changed as she is now head coach of the women’s squad. “Players are so much fitter and stronger,” she says. “At top-level competitions you may have two games in a day, each lasting two-and-a-half hours and that takes a high level of strength and fitness, as well as real mental concentration.”
She also jokes that the financial rewards are so much greater now – “back then we used to play for a lasagne dish as a prize in a competition”.
When Howie’s rink (as a curling team is called) trained full time for a few months before Salt Lake City it was at some cost to them professionally and personally: they took unpaid breaks from their jobs, and those with children had to leave them in the care of family. “We made the decision to go full time from the October until the February [when the Games took place] and it was tough to be away from the family so much,” says Howie.
Muirhead’s rink – Claire Hamilton, Vicki Adams, Anna Sloan and reserve Lauren Gray – have all been full-time athletes since they graduated from university. They train on the ice and in the gym for several hours a day, with doctors, nutritionists and physiotherapists on hand at the team’s training centres in Perth and Stirling; there is even a sports psychologist in the thoroughly professional set-up. The funding that supports the endeavour comes equally from sportscotland and UK Sport.
Muirhead, who like the rest of her team was enthralled by Howie’s achievement in Salt Lake City and as a child was allowed to stay up past midnight to watch the final, says the media attention greatly raised curling’s profile, and younger players have been attracted to a sport that was once dismissed as “bowls on ice”.
The attraction for many young players, says Muirhread, is that it not only demands all-round fitness and stamina but is a highly strategic game that has been called chess on ice. “You’re always playing the game a few moves ahead and not just the shot you are about to play,” she says.
Team GB travel to Sochi effectively as world champions, as Muirhead’s rink is the Scotland side she led to victory over Sweden at the World Championships in Latvia last March. Despite the disappointment of having the result reversed at the European Championships in Norway in November, Howie believes Muirhead and Co have two great advantages.
“We’re the team to beat, although all opposition is tough until you beat them. And the girls have played alongside each other for about seven years, at junior, student and senior level. They know each other so well.”
The main opposition for Muirhead’s rink when the competition starts on 10 February will be Canada, Switzerland, Sweden and China.
Howie’s rink were awarded MBEs, and she appeared on various television programmes for a while, but there was a downside to their brief fame. Howie’s marriage broke up and the substitute Margaret Morton accused the four others of freezing her out of their victory, and the tabloids pounced. But Muirhead and Co are much more media savvy, setting their own agenda via social media.
As talented and attractive young sportswomen, should they win the gold medal they will be famous overnight – and Muirhead has already dipped her toe in the celebrity pool, having posed, wearing little more than a Saltire flag, for a charity calendar in 2010. She has no regrets, she tells me, “if it raises the profile of the sport, all to the good”.
On the ice the 23-year-old from Blair Atholl is known for her steely determination; I ask Howie what would happen if the skip is required to deliver another stone of destiny in the gold-medal match on 20 February. “Eve’s got a cool head,” says Howie. “She’ll be able to do it.”
The A-Z of curling
Age From at least the early 16th century.
Birthplace Contested between Scotland and the Low Countries
Terminology: End Ten ends per match; each team of four throws eight rocks (42lb granite stones), two per player, alternating. Therefore: extra end, a deciding innings when a game stands tied; and blank end, when no points are scored.
House The red, white and blue circles surrounding the button (bullseye) where points are scored.
Rink The team, which has a skip (who determines strategy and usually delivers the last stone), lead (who goes first), second and third.
Scoring The team with the stone closest to the centre of the button wins and is awarded a point. If a team has two stones closer to the centre of the button, it gets two points, and so on. Only the winning team is awarded points in each end.
Sheet The playing area.
Sweep To brush the ice.