South Korea’s women’s curling team turned to their hometown fans and bowed.
The fans in the stadium couldn’t contain their excitement. The women, none of which were born before 1990 or have any Olympic experience, had just forced the U.S. women to concede defeat for not only a Korean win, but a clinching of the top spot in the tournament semifinals.
The Korean women, led by skip EunJung Kim, have breezed through round robin play, going a tournament best 8-1, and outscoring their opponents by 31 points – 75 for to 44 against – also a tournament best by nearly double the second best.
The emergence of this team is something few outside of Korea expected. The national team went just 3-6 at the 2014 Olympics, the first time the country had competed in in curling. They finished fourth twice at the World Championships, though that was back in 2012 and 2014.
At the 2017 Worlds, with this same team of EunJung Kim, YeongMi Kim, SeonYeong Kim and KyeongAe Kim, the women finished sixth after going 5-6 in round robin play. They had just a +5 goal differential in the tournament. They made the PyeongChang games off of an automatic qualification because their home country was hosting the Games.
There’s no doubt that Korea has benefitted some from the poor play of other previous tournament favorites, namely Canada and Team OAR. But the Koreans have also dominated just about every game they’ve played. Their lone loss came in the second game of the tournament, a 7-5 loss to Japan.
The good thing about this team though, is they don’t focus on the fact that they're facing off against curling heavyweights, especially considering they've now defeated all of the best teams in the world.
"Instead of focusing on what the other teams are good at or capable of, we're going to focus on our team,” said Coach Kim MinJung after a recent game. "We will try to take every game as a fresh start every time."
Since their lone loss, Korea rattled off seven straight wins, reaching double-digits in two different games, and winning three games by more than five points. They’ve scored seven more points than second best Canada, and their 44 points allowed is four fewer than second place Sweden. No other team allowed fewer than 55.
"We are just trying to play smart and just go out and relax. We've played all of these teams before multiple times, so it's trying to basically put it all into perspective,” said coach Peter Gallant. "At the end of the day, it's a curling game and if we can go out there and just remember that then we can remember all we need to do is focus on making shots. (If) we can go out and make the shots, and make the shots with the rest of them, we have a good chance to win every game."
Winning games has definitely been a huge hit among the hometown fans, who pack stadiums waving Korean flags, cheering and stomping their feet loudly. The suppport has also reached beyond the stadium. Skip EunJung Kim has become an internet sensation, with her big glasses and intense stare as she throws the rock becoming iconic parts of the PyeongChang Games.
If Korea is on the way to becoming a world class curling team, they definitely have the fans to support them.
"This environment is just fabulous,” Gallant said. “You have two options: you can either embrace it and realize they are all for you, or you can get nervous and worry about it. We've taken the proper road I think and embraced it and it's fun. But curling, as far as that goes in Korea, there is not much of it. It hasn't developed into the social game that it is in Canada at all."
The Koreans weren’t expected to even be contenders in PyeongChang, much less the class of the field. That doesn’t stop them from wanting more.
"We found out we made history, but we're not satisfied with only just this,” MinJung Kim told reporters after defeating the U.S. “We will do better in the rest of the matches. We feel like we want to give back to the spectators and all the Korean crowd because of the support they are giving us. They are putting so much importance on the fact that curling is not that popular, and people don't understand how we are doing well. We believe that if we do better and better people will have more interest in curling. Korean citizens think that we have come out of nowhere and we just appeared but we have practiced over 10 years and we are programmed and made to be like this. We have made a lot of effort to be in this position."
After being brushed off as just another competitor in these Olympics, this South Korea team is now on to a curling semifinal, and possibly history.
Korea will take on Japan in the women's semifinal Thursday at 6 a.m. EST. The winner will move on to the Gold Medal Game against the winner of Sweden and Great Britain, while the two losers will play for bronze.