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
"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
"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
"There's been such a big change, the difference is
tangible," Chung chuckled.
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
"This is the best conditions we've ever had," he shouts.
"Remember where we came from!"
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)