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Olympics-South Korea curlers swept up in Sochi dreams

Reuters

By Narae Kim

SEOUL, Dec 2 (Reuters) - Clasping the treasured broom she

used to reach the Sochi Games, Shin Mi-sung smiles as she

remembers the ridicule and embarrassment she has had to endure

as part of South Korea's Olympic curling team.

"I used to take the subway holding this broom in my hand and

people would think I was a window cleaner or a street sweeper,"

Shin told Reuters in an interview.

At 35 the eldest of Korea's five-woman team headed to Sochi

for the Feb. 7-23 Games, Shin recalls one moment when a dire

lack of funding forced them to take extreme measures.

"Professional curlers don't re-use the brush pads but we had

to wash ours over and over again, until too much lint built up

and made them completely unusable," she said, as the hint of a

smile began to break through.

"One time at an international match, we saw our competitors

throw away their brush pads after using them only once. So we

picked them out of the trash when no one was watching, washed

them and used them in the next game," she said through fits of

laughter.

"At that time we were just so happy to get virtually

brand-new pads for free. I guess we couldn't afford to feel

embarrassed back then."

However, the days when Shin and team mates Kim Ji-sun, Lee

Seul-bee, Gim Un-chi and Um Min-ji have to go rifling through

garbage for equipment are long gone.

Finishing in the top four at the World Women's Curling

Championships in Canada in March last year not only gave Korea

enough points for an Olympic berth, it also brought much-needed

funding and, perhaps more importantly, recognition.

With South Korea's Pyeongchang set to host the Winter Games

in 2018, that support seems set to continue for years to come.

Coach Chung Young-sup told Reuters that nothing was the same

after that. "Everything flipped upside down."

It was then that the governor of their home province decided

to create a more professional curling set-up, providing more

money, insurance and all the other perks enjoyed by government

employees.

"When we returned, Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo

created a curling team and provided a vehicle, a house near the

training centre and all the expenses for overseas training.

"Not long after that, Korea's biggest retail conglomerate

Shinsegae pledged 10 billion won ($9.42 million) until 2018 for

the development of Korean curling and launched the

Shinsegae-Emart National Curling Competition, which started in

early October.

"There's been such a big change, the difference is

tangible," Chung chuckled.

RIDICULE, INDIFFERENCE

Despite the team garnering the points to earn South Korea a

berth in Sochi, they then had to actually win the national team

tryouts in April for the right to represent the country in its

Olympic curling debut.

"Ironically, they seemed more nervous during the national

team selection process," said assistant coach Choi Min-suk, who

also plays for men's national team. "They were afraid to lose

the ticket (to Sochi) that they earned themselves."

While the new-found prosperity has made things easier, the

team constantly remind themselves of the struggles that forged

their bond, the times they had to swallow their pride and put up

with ridicule, or worse, abject indifference, from the public.

"What we were most envious of other players during

international games was that they stayed in a hotel and had

meals already made for them," said skip Kim Ji-sun.

"We, on the other hand, had to homestay and cooked meals by

ourselves while practicing just as much, if not more than them.

"Some still belittle the sport, calling it just 'sweeping

the ice', but I'm not offended at all. It would be better if

they used the term 'curling' but at least they know what we do

and how we do it," said the 26-year-old, who married Chinese

national team curler Xu Xiaoming in May.

"We are aiming for the podium at the Olympic Games, maybe

the top spot. We are literally grinding our teeth in order to

live up to the expectation," she said with determination.

With the Sochi Games fast approaching, the team are

practicing at Taeneung National Training Centre but despite

being Olympic representatives they have to share the ice with

other local curlers and have mock games with high school teams.

Whenever the players appear to be taking their change in

fortunes for granted, assistant coach Choi keeps their feet on

the ice.

"This is the best conditions we've ever had," he shouts.

"Remember where we came from!"

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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