South Korea’s ‘Garlic Girls’ enjoy the sweet smell of Olympic success

It’s hard to imagine how a teacher’s chalkboard and four simple words 12 years ago could bring together a team of South Korean curlers that went on to win an unprecedented Olympic silver medal, achieving cult hero status along the way.

But they did.

Back in 2006 — before the Winter Olympics had even been awarded to South Korea — the country’s first curling center was built in a tiny village named Uiseong in a region better known for its agriculture than its athletes.

Uiseong’s major export, like the curling team, bears a reputation for its pungent nature, and so came about the team’s rock star label: the “Garlic Girls.”

Kim Eun-jung was the curling center’s first recruit, just 16 years old at the time, closely followed by her friend Kim Yeong-mi, who also brought along her younger sister.

The fourth recruit was tempted shortly after by a simple question on that chalkboard: “Who wants to curl?”

The final member joined later on, Kim Cho-hi, and it was instantly clear that fate had brought them together — every one of them named Kim.

A generous disposition

It’s not unusual to see Swedish and Canadian women dominating Curling at the Winter Olympics — they’ve contested the last two finals and have been regular fixtures on the podium for the last 20 years.

What is less expected is Asian teams succeeding at the sport. That is, until now. Everything changed at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang as the South Korean women’s curling team blazed a trail to the Olympic final and that historic silver medal.

Hopes were high for Korean fans ahead of PyeongChang, but they were looking to the speed-skaters to deliver the medals. Curling was barely on the radar — only 800 people curl in South Korea, a country with just five centers dedicated to the sport.

But some people were rooting for them, people whose lives had already been changed by the “Garlic Girls.”

Kim Yeong-mi’s father had died when she and her sister were young. She told CNN Sport her natural inclination was to help people like herself, because she “didn’t grow up in a wealthy family.”

Her ambition to become a kindergarten teacher never came into fruition, but as the team partnered up with the NGO World Vision, Kim found another way to realize her dream: providing assistance to children in need by sponsoring children in South Korea and as far afield as Vietnam and Bosnia.

Since 2011 the “Garlic Girls” have been helping a young Bosnian boy named Aliosa, and he has not forgotten their kindness. On the eve of the Games he sent through a video message of support, cheering them on from across the globe.

The team had been using their prize money to assist Aliosa with his education and Kim Yeong-mi was thrilled to hear from him: “We are all very happy that he’s made it to a higher-level school with the small amount of money we sent him.”

And if there’s such a thing as karma, Team Kim was about to experience it.

Reaching K-pop star status

“Prior to the Olympics, we never imagined this would happen to us. Not many people knew about curling, but so many people supported us,” Kim explained.

Even weeks later, she remains giddy at the memory of their Olympic experience. By beating the defending champions Canada in the group stage, the girls had won everyone’s attention; by making the final, they had made history — the first ever appearance by an Asian team in the gold medal match.

That they ultimately fell short against Sweden hardly seemed to matter — five humble, unassuming young women had suddenly been elevated to the revered cultural status of K-pop stars.

In the weeks since the Olympics, they have found themselves being stopped on the street and sent extra food when dining in restaurants.

Though delighted with their success on a personal level, the “Garlic Girls” had been oblivious to the scope of excitement sparked by their silver medal run throughout South Korea, having surrendered their phones for the duration of the competition.

“When we got our phones back, we were getting so many notifications on our social media feeds that we had to turn them off,” Kim explained.

Both she and her teammates could easily have been changed by the experience, but they remain incredibly down to earth.

Staying grounded

Team Kim’s success is clearly marketable, but they have not used their newfound success to cash in at the earliest opportunity, as many might have done.

Their coach explained that with a wave of lucrative commercial endorsement offers flooding in, the “Garlic Girls” have been cautious and considered in their decisions.

By promoting Uiseong garlic ham, they’re not forgetting their roots — quite literally; while the decision to sign a deal with electronics company LG is based on the firm’s well-documented corporate social responsibility.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has had a fair amount to deal with over the last couple of months on the world stage, to say the least, but he took time to write to the “Garlic Girls” personally.

In his letter, he remarked specifically on the team’s generous spirit, and it’s hard to disagree with him.

On the money gained from their Olympic success, Kim Yeong-mi talks in simple terms: “Although it may be a small amount of money for us, there are so many things children can do with the same amount, such as, to go to school or eat a decent meal. We want to give them hope.”

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