The South Korean women’s curling team, hometown rock stars of these Winter Games, put on quite a show for a rollicking arena in Pyeongchang on Friday. The team defeated Japan in the semifinals, 8-7, claiming the nail-biter victory only after both teams went tied into an extra end.
The win vaults South Korea into the gold medal round Sunday, where Sweden awaits after knocking the U.K. out of competition with a 10-5 semifinal victory.
It also etches a place in history for these women: Never before has South Korea medaled on the sheet — a feat they’re now certain to achieve. In fact, this is only the country’s second Olympic appearance ever in curling, following its inaugural showing in the 2014 Sochi Games.
Never mind that brief resume, though. The curlers — who all share the surname Kim and have earned the affectionate nickname “Garlic Girls” for their garlic-producing home county, Uiseong — played like grizzled Olympic veterans Friday.
In Friday’s match, they leaped out to an early lead against the only team that has defeated South Korea’s first-ranked squad in these Games. But just when it seemed as if the avenging would go easy against Japan, who beat the Korean women earlier in round robin play, the Japanese swept back into the game.
Still, Japan never quite managed to tie the score — until the 10th end, when a crucial mistake by South Korean skip Eun Jung Kim knotted the score at 7 and forced extra throws.
Kim didn’t make that mistake twice. A much milder toss in the 11th end — and the mad sweeping of her teammates — brought home the white-knuckle win.
At that, the arena erupted.
“In the round robins, it was a bit pressure because we were not used to play games with big crowd,” the skip — who has adopted the moniker “Yogurt” — said afterward, according to Reuters.
The women all hail from a rural area of some 53,000 people, about half of whom are farmers. They’ve taken some extra measures to stay focused on such a big stage, limiting their TV time and voluntarily turning in their phones. Despite the fact the Games have been hosted relatively close to home, the team didn’t exactly enjoy a homesheet advantage: They had only a little over a week to practice at the Gangneung Curling Center.
“But as the games went on,” “Yogurt” Kim added, “we could enjoy it and the crowd seemed to come here after studying rules, so that was helpful for us. With this huge support, I thought there’s nothing we can’t do.”
These rock stars will bring that support — if not their guitars, which one meme provided — with them into unprecedented territory Sunday, when they face Sweden for the gold medal.
NPR Seoul correspondent Elise Hu and producer Se Eun Gong contributed to this report.