Olympics: Martin's race to play 'stone of destiny'

By Mike Rowbottom
Saturday 23 February 2002 01:00

Rhona Martin, who led her team of women curlers here to Britain's first Winter Olympic gold in 18 years, was on the brink of having to pull out before the Games began because of a stomach complaint, it was revealed yesterday.

Less than 24 hours after her final delivery had earned Britain a 4-3 win over Switzerland, Martin explained how she had had to leave her colleagues at their training camp in Calgary a week before the Games got under way in order to have urgent medical treatment in the Salt Lake medical centre.

"Rhona very nearly missed the Games," said the women's coach Russell Keillor. "We came very, very close to not being able to be here." He added that team management had been about to call up a reserve and move second player Debbie Knox up to skip, but had decided to gamble on Martin recovering in time.

Martin, who did not want to discuss the specific cause of her problem, admitted that she had considered the possibility that she might not be fit enough to take part. "I was worried," she said. "It was hard on the girls to have to practise for the Olympic Games without me being there. I wasn't 100 per cent when the tournament started, but I got sharper as the week went on."

She could hardly have been any sharper at the other end of the tournament, however, as her concluding delivery on the last end gave the Scottish quartet the scoring shot they required to secure a prize which they are still nowhere near coming to terms with.

"It was a routine draw," said the 35-year-old housewife from Dunlop, in Ayrshire, who has been named as Britain's flagbearer in the closing ceremony. "I was not thinking of about what it meant when I took the shot, I was just concentrating on winning the match. When I played it I was quite happy with the stone. After that it's down to the two who are sweeping and it's their judgement call to alter the weight so I left it in their capable hands and they got it right. When the other girls jumped up in the air, I thought: 'Oh. We've won'."

The other girls – Knox, Fiona MacDonald, whose husband Ewan was here with the British men's team, and Janice Rankin – were not the only ones jumping in the air, although they were probably the only ones to be sending brooms flying through the air. As the quartet sat in a line the morning after their achievement, along with their reserve, Margaret Morton, the full realisation of what they had achieved was only beginning to become apparent to them. "I don't think we know what we've done yet," said Knox. "We've won an Olympic gold medal, and we didn't realise the media coverage it would get."

No other curling team had to match the British record of playing 13 matches, including two extra play-off matches just to remain in the main draw after two concluding defeats in their round-robin event had consigned them, in Martin's opinion, to an exit. "We're gone," she said at the time. "We're dead."

Now she is a legend – in the words of the British coach Mike Hay – "the girl who threw the stone of destiny." Britain's chef de mission Simon Clegg, whose forecast of at least two medals here has come to pass after Alex Coomber's third place in the skeleton, said: "Rhona has written herself into British sporting history."

Martin herself was characteristically downbeat about her performance, and indeed about the quandary in which she had been put by her sudden illness. The only thing that truly animated her yesterday was her recollection of the previous evening's medal ceremony, where the team shared a stage with Alanis Morissette, the angst-ridden Canadian singer whose philosophy chimed so discordantly with hers.

Was she a fan of Morissette, someone enquired? "Not quite yet," she said with a little smile.

The British team had spent most of the previous six months together preparing for the Olympics in Canada (where they stayed for three weeks), Lofer, and the British camp in Calgary. "We have been training and travelling together for the best part of six months," MacDonald said. "We've been living in hotel rooms, mixing round who stays with who, going down to breakfast with each other, getting to know each other."

Illness was not the only thing Martin had to contend with in the run-up – she chose not to have full rehabilitation from a knee operation she underwent a year ago in order not to disrupt the planning, which meant she often had to play in pain.

But even so soon after winning the ultimate prize in the sport, her thoughts were turning to the next engagement for Britain's Olympic champions – the Scottish Championships starting at Braemar on Monday week. A win there is required as part of seeking qualification for the next Olympics in Turin. They are fairly confident.

Judging by the way they seemed to have coped with the whirlwind of activity they had just been engaged in, Martin's team should be able to cope.

"We all went off in a van from Ogden to the medal plaza," Martin recalled. "The media were on the phone all the way down. Then we went into the green room where we were shown how to walk round and collect our medals. We did the medal ceremony, which was just fabulous – seeing all those faces and the British flags waving was a feeling I couldn't describe. Then we had a glass of champagne, then we went back to bed. That was it."

There's no fuss, no nonsense, with Rhona Martin. Jonathan Ross had better watch his step when she and her girls appear on They Think It's All Over.

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