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Stone rose happy to be dark horse

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Ollie Williams | 22:34 UK time, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The walk from King Edward station to the Vancouver Olympic Centre, in the city's southern suburbs, is as idyllic a 10-minute stroll as you will find here.

Passing by tranquil detached houses and fences gleaming white in the bright morning sun, I'm more minded of Wisteria Lane than a Winter Olympics.

But step inside the Olympic Centre itself, the venue for the curling competitions at the Vancouver Games, and that all changes.

The temperature plunges to the point where cameramen filming the action can be seen jogging on the spot behind their cameras to keep their circulation going. Canadians wrapped in flags must wish they had brought blankets instead.

Team GB, however, will be feeling the heat. The British men's and women's curling teams are both expected to challenge for medals here, and the women began that challenge in fine fashion on Wednesday, narrowly defeating world champions China in their opening clash.

The women's skip (or captain) is Eve Muirhead - at 19, one of the youngest women in the entire British squad for the Winter Games. But she has been handed the task of leading four other curlers with a cumulative age of 140.

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There is no other skip at Olympic level as young as Muirhead, and it has been practically the only topic of discussion in previews of the British team's chances in Vancouver. The British women are ranked seventh in the world, but Muirhead's profile has been such that Canadian media have warned she is a "dark horse" to lead GB to gold.

Now she is here and, alongside her vastly experienced squad, she must deliver. There is no hiding behind her age, having been selected to represent Great Britain at the highest level, and she knows it.

On the ice, she cuts a determined, focused figure. Off it, having beaten the Chinese, she bubbled with enthusiasm for the steep learning curve ahead.

"I don't think about my age at all," she told me, "and I want to be a dark horse. We've had a good season and we plan on slugging along like we have been doing.

"Getting early wins like we did out there this morning is crucial. If you get off to a good start, you don't get games that haunt you when it comes to the end of the week."

The curling contest begins with a round-robin stage where each of the 10 women's teams face each other. After that the top four progress, so Muirhead naturally wants qualification sewn up as early as possible.

But she does not bear the burden of expectation alone. For most of the China fixture, she could be seen standing alongside Jackie Lockhart, a 44-year-old former world champion and veteran of the Turin Games in 2006.

Eve MuirheadEve Muirhead eyes victory over China on her Olympic debut. Photo: PA

Variously talking tactics, grimacing at stones in the distance or laughing to break the tension, the pair are the engine room of the British bid for gold. If you haven't watched curling before, you could liken it to snooker - it's imperative you stay three to four moves ahead, otherwise you're sunk. Watching Muirhead and Lockhart in action, you can almost hear the cogs whirring.

"This is a huge team game, not an individual one, and that's what we've definitely pulled on," said Lockhart. "We've got lots of experience and energy and there's a real dynamic to that mix.

"But I do take my hat off to Eve because she has got fantastic ability at the age of 19. I didn't have anything like her ability until I was about 30. She's got a long future ahead of her - if she can keep it up," she added, laughing as Muirhead listened in. "I'm sure she will!"

Muirhead kept her cool to win her opening contest with the final stone, and by a matter of inches at that. Dan Rafael, the Canadian who coached the Chinese women to the 2009 world title, blamed his own charges for the defeat, but told me Muirhead has a capability to cope with the Olympic stage despite her age.

"We dug our own hole and didn't get out of it," he said. "We made a mistake that was kind of big, and in this competition you can't make mistakes like that.

"For both teams this piece of ice was a little tricky. We saw a lot of hit-and-roll-outs. I think it was going to come down to who was going to hit and stay, which Eve did. She almost rolled it a few inches too far, but she was fine.

"Whether you can cope at that age depends on a person's personality," added Rafael, citing the example of Canada's John Morris. Morris, like Muirhead, won more than one world junior title, and went on to help Canada lift the 2008 men's world title.

"I saw John at 15 and he had the maturity of a 30-year-old," said Rafael. "That's what counts and Eve Muirhead seems to be very mature for 19 years of age. She'll be fine.

"When you get on the ice, anybody who can throw a rock is dangerous. It's like in baseball: if you've got a bat in your hand, it doesn't matter if you're a pitcher or an outfielder, you can hit the ball. It's the same in curling - it doesn't matter how old you are."

Muirhead laughed out loud when I pointed out that if you chose two other countries' skips at random, chances are you would come out with more than 60 years' curling experience. But those skips are not laughing. While Muirhead's age is an interesting oddity for the media, especially when curling traditionally boasts the eldest competitors in winter sport, it is an irrelevance for her rivals. They see only a threat to their medal hopes.

"She's a multiple junior world champion, she's very confident and she plays with no fear," said American skip Debbie McCormick. "We're going to have to play tough against her."

British women's curling teamLeft to right: Lockhart and Muirhead locked in thought alongside Lorna Vevers and Kelly Wood. Photo: PA

If Muirhead is to deliver on her dark horse tag, she will have to get past the Canadians, ranked number one in the world. Curling is up there with ice hockey as a sport the host nation considers a nailed-on gold medal prospect, led by skip Cheryl Bernard, who has been curling since she was eight - in other words, for the last 35 years.

But Bernard's experience may not be as big a danger as the Olympic Centre crowd. The Canadian fans generate such an almighty noise, on such a regular basis, that the cheers of British supporters are reduced to mere whispers by comparison. Throw in the Swiss fans with their cowbells and the strangulated bleats of "Haaard! Haaard!" from the curlers, and it starts to sound like the loudest farm in the world.

Muirhead, though, won the junior world title here last year, and insisted she will thrive on the atmosphere.

"The arena is fantastic," she said. "The buzz in that place is massive - we have to use lots of hand signals to communicate."

"A game is a game to us though," added Lockhart, leaning in. "It's just another game, even though it's at the Olympics. If you manage it that way, you'll manage it a lot easier."

On the ice, when Muirhead needs that advice the most in her Olympic infancy, Lockhart will be two feet away, dispensing it.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    The article on the results of the male and female curling results says:

    "But Muirhead's quartet were unable to shut the game out and France responded with a double and two singles to move with two at 4-6 down."

    Muirhead is the girl, Murdoch is the guy.

  • Comment number 2.

    You're not wrong, Motty. We'll get it corrected. There is a relatively clear difference between the two!

  • Comment number 3.

    She is fit.

  • Comment number 4.

    She certainly is fit

  • Comment number 5.

    Moi

  • Comment number 6.

    she is beautiful

  • Comment number 7.

    As an olympic athlete I would hope she is fit, but I agree with the other posters

  • Comment number 8.

    I reckon she is marriage material, just wished she played for the other team

  • Comment number 9.

    God I despair..... are these comments actually constructive in any way, yes Eve is an attractive, healthy young woman and as an elite athelete is fit.

    Thought I had stumbled onto FHM for one moment. These sort of comments don't help establish Curling as a serious sport.

    Come along to one of the RCCC Come and Try sessions in March and see how hard it really is: http://www.trycurling.co.uk/

  • Comment number 10.

    Vancouver Olympics 2010

    Can team England win gold in curling?

    For more, go to http://babysportsinstitute.blogspot.com

  • Comment number 11.

    Welshcurler, surely it can be only a good thing for curling that the lead curler in the British Olymic team is buff as. As for establishing it as a serious sport, that is never going to happen. Infact, nothing in the winter Olympics will ever be taken that seriously by the public.

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    Anhtuan - there is no Team England.

    As a proud Scot, its a bit frustrating when people keep referring to our team as English rather than British - especially since the GB curling teams (both mens and womens) are made up of mainly Scottish curlers.

  • Comment number 14.

    Hey, quite a few of the female curlers are not bad at all. Come to think of it there's heaps o' nice totty on the go at these Olympics.
    Have to say young Evie's my favourite tho!

    All the best Eve!! xxx

  • Comment number 15.

    Just to clarify. There is an agreement that GB is represented by Scotland when it comes to the curling. The teams are always Scottish teams.
    Basically the English cannae play it very well.

  • Comment number 16.

    There is only 1 place in England to play curling so it's bound to be Scots to represent GBR but so what they do us all proud and its a great sport to watch.

  • Comment number 17.

    For her age, she surely has to easily be up there with the best curlers on the planet. Her performance, and the rest of the girls today, today was exemplary against Germany, and her maturity and decision-making on the rink belie the 19 year old head on her shoulders.



  • Comment number 18.

    xenosys2005 - Agreed, I watched the tail end of the Germany game and to hold your nerve to that level, against a skip with more than twice (if not three times) your experience, in what is a very noisy Olympic venue, is no mean feat.

  • Comment number 19.

    So as an ignorant American, could someone explain me how sometimes you guys represent Great Britain and sometimes you represent your individual countries (i.e. England in the World Cup)? Is it just a matter of whether you think you need to team up to be competitive, or if you feel you've got a shot at winning on your own?

  • Comment number 20.

    I watched the GB v Germany round-robin tie earlier this evening and enjoyed every minute of it. I think Eve Muirhead's rink has an excellent chance of medalling, hopefully going all the way for Gold. The balance in the rink is fantastic.

    Eve Muirhead herself is a prodigy. She has all the attributes of a great skip in the making - she reads the game well including the changing ice conditions in the course of a game, opposition shot choice and delivery and the finer nuances of the game which, like cricket, are subtle and complex beyond the first impressions of the casual observer; she plans her strategy on the hoof as well as any and her execution of the pressure shots is up there with the best.

    Her 'Third', Jackie Lockhart, a former World Champion skip, member of various rinks at European and World level as well as being a multiple Scottish Champion provides the mature foil to the youthful and dynamic youngster.

    Kelly Wood is a very experienced skip in her own right and an ideal 'Second' in the rink. She has the ability to play key shots in the early development of attacking ends, setting the platform for Jackie and Eve to do their stuff at the business end.

    Lorna Vevers is a rock steady 'Lead' who can be relied upon to drop the corner and centre guards on a sixpence.

    I have been very impressed so far. I hope they keep up the good work and go all the way.

    Here's tae success in the 'Roaring Game'!



  • Comment number 21.

    Scott it is actually very simple. England, Scotland, Wales adn Northern Ireland are not countries, 'merely' now legally regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irelend. Where we play individually as England, Scotlad etc it is merely a question of tradition in individual sports, and really follows the precedent set in International Football wher England versus Scotland ws the first true international. Many other sports have had 'Home Internationals' ie competitions between the different historic countries of the UK, and this has led to the home 'nations' playing separately owing to separate affiliation to various sporting regulatory bodies. However, in most sports we participate as Great Britain, which includes Northern Ireland although strictly in non-sporting terms it does not hence why in the Olympics we are known as GB and NI.

  • Comment number 22.

    England , Scotland and Wales certainly are countries, davrid. I'm sure many proud Welsh, Scots and English men/women won't like their countries to be described as regions!

  • Comment number 23.

    Dravid,
    Actually, it is not that simple. It started in 1896 when the countries of Great Britain combined to make a team for the Olympics.

    Most sports are played against other nations by all the individual countries of Great Britain. Not too many people would like to see a GB team for the World Cup in Africa this year!
    Indeed, most citizens of Great Britain would like to see their own countries represented at the Olympics, but it would be very costly.

  • Comment number 24.

    To Gavelaa,
    you wrote "Infact, nothing in the winter Olympics will ever be taken that seriously by the public."

    I take it that you were only refering to the insular Great British public. ;-)
    The winter Olympics, and winter sports in general, are actually quite big in several (northern and central) European countries, Russia, northern Asian countries, Canada and parts of the U.S. Not as universal as summer Olympic sports, I grant you, but very important in countries where ice hockey is the number one professional sport, where cross country or downhill skiers are national heroes.

    I'm glad that despite the general lack of enthusiasm for winter sports, GB does produce top athletes and teams, for example the Kerr siblings in ice dance, Chemmy Alcott in alpine skiing, the curlers, Amy Williams in skeleton... Thumbs up for all GB winter sportsmen and women!

  • Comment number 25.

    I watched the interview with Eve Muirhead and Jackie Lockhart after the defeat by Canada, or should I say, the missed opportunity of a GB victory. Eve said the right things to camera at first, but subsided into a stunned "1000-yard stare" while Jackie was interviewed. Jackie's comments of "she'll bounce back" sounded a bit hollow, I'm afraid, and there was certainly no bounce-back in evidence against Switzerland.

    Did the coaches do this hugely-talented 19 year-old any favours by making her skip? Is there no stand-in who could skip while she gets her head together again? Canada certainly used that option after an unexpected defeat.
    "What doesn't kill you makes you strong." or so they say. I sure hope this tournament isn't killing Eve's self-belief. She needs careful handling now so that she can go on to be World Senior Champion and to a medal in Sochi.

  • Comment number 26.

    Sorry, senior moment. That defeat snatched from the jaws of victory was v. the USA, not Canada.

  • Comment number 27.

    Simple question, on some of the sweepers brushes there appears to be some kind of device near to the head, what is it?

  • Comment number 28.

    27. At 10:57pm on 22 Feb 2010, gramar357

    It's just a stopwatch put in a convenient location to measure the time it takes to get from one hog line to the other. It helps to determine how the ice is playing on that particular rink, and also aids in assisting with weight of shot.

  • Comment number 29.

    @Welshcurler who says I am obliged to promote curling as a serious sport? If you want to promote it, go right ahead, but this is the comments section under a blog post on the internet, and I demand the right to free speech without being lectured to by the likes of you. I say Eve Muirhead is fit (as in attractive) and I want to go out with her. I admire her steely determination as a sportswoman, and the stern icy gaze of her piercing blue eyes makes my tummy go funny. Spare us the lecture.

 

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