From whitewashed to winners: the rise of the ‘other’ Team Kim
Team Minji Kim's journey to the Grand Final has been quite the story.
As we approach May’s Grand Final, we’ll be profiling the athletes vying to end their season with a Curling World Cup gold medal. There’s nowhere better to start than our Jonkoping leg three winners Team Minji Kim of Korea.
National champions? Tick. Pacific-Asia gold medallists? Tick. Curling World Cup leg winners? Tick. And all this before turning 20 years of age.
It has been quite the rise for Korea’s Team Minji Kim this season. Starting it in the shadow of Olympic silver medallists and national icons Team (EunJung) Kim – they quickly emerged to make an enormous impact.
All born in the year prior to the new Millennium, Minji Kim skips the team with vice-skip Hyerin Kim, second Taei Yang and lead Sujin Kim completing the line-up.
The Chuncheon-based team’s extraordinary rise started with their maiden tour victory in the first event of the season at the Hokkaido Bank Curling Classic in Japan, after triumphing over home favourites Team Chiaki Matsurmura in the final.
The youngsters then ousted the iconic ‘Garlic Girls’ at their national championships and earned the right to fly the flag for Korea during the 2018-2019 season – starting with leg one at the Curling World Cup.
Kim revealed after that win that her sisters and auntie were in tearful disbelief, telling her they had just beaten “our Olympic heroines”.
At those Olympic Winter Games 12 months ago, Team Kim were mere spectators inside the Gangneung Curling Centre cheering on Sweden’s Team Niklas Edin. Seven months later, they found themselves sharing the same ice with the world champions in Suzhou.
Prior to competing in Curling World Cup leg one, Kim said qualifying for May’s Grand Final “would be the greatest gift of all,” but admitted to apprehension about playing on such a big stage.
“This is the first Curling World Cup and it’s our first time being Team Korea, so we are really nervous,” she admitted. “This is going to be a new start for us. Team Rachel Homan are our role models and we’ve always said we would love to play them sometime.”
It was those nerves that halted the Koreans’ journey as they began their Curling World Cup campaign disastrously, conceding 31 points in their opening three encounters – including a stunning 12-0 defeat to their idols, Team Homan.
World champion skip Homan, however, saw potential in the young team and was sure they would grow as they gained more and more experience on the circuit. "Korea are a new team so they're still learning about each other,” said the Suzhou champion. “I'm sure we'll see a stronger performance next time we play them.”
They did exactly that, ending their time in Suzhou with a sensational 8-2 victory over Homan, the No. 1 ranked team in the world in their final group game.
Rice cakes, reading and rocks
The fresh-faced line-up was formed in Minak Middle School in the northwest of South Korea and they went on to graduate from Songhyun High School together. Reflecting on their time together, Yang Taei said: “During high school days, four people gathered at the curling hall for three or four hours each time after school and ate tasty rice cakes and snacks.“
From pencil cases and backpacks to travelling the world with brooms and sliders, the team - led by their coach Sungjun Lee - returned to the Curling World Cup stage determined.
The Koreans’ second outing in Omaha was a significant improvement, producing more assured and confident displays in defeating United States champions Team Jamie Sinclair, Russia’s No. 1 rink Team Alina Kovaleva and this season’s sixth-best quartet Canada’s Team Tracy Fleury.
Team Kim, then all 19 years old, defeated Team Fleury and booked their spot in the Curling World Cup leg two final – an impressive feat, not that they were getting carried away.
“We were nervous in Suzhou,” said Minji. “But now we feel much better than before. We can’t wait to play the final but we always try to be humble so we can learn because we are still young.”
Heartbreak, redemption and grand finale
In Omaha’s final, the team faced Japan’s Olympic bronze medallists, Team Satsuki Fujisawa – an opponent they had defeated the previous month to claim gold at the Pacific-Asia Championship 2018.
Despite having the lead for the majority of the game and in control of the hammer in the final end, the jitters returned at a fatal moment for the Korean skip. A draw to the eight foot was all that was required for victory but the granite slid too far and the teenagers succumbed to an agonising defeat.
The skip looked horrified as her final stone came to rest and while noticeably downbeat, was optimistic about their upcoming opportunity in leg three.
“Since we are so young we have many chances in the future,” she said at the Ralston Arena. “We have kept the same team since we were in high school, so hopefully we will get another chance.”
Another chance did come their way in leg three in Jonkoping. The Koreans faced the home favourites and Olympic champions Team Anna Hasselborg in the final.
With a healthy 6-4 lead and going into the final end with the hammer, Hyerin Kim ensured her skip kept cool and calm, encouraging her to take a deep breath before each slide from the hack.
“In the Omaha final, my last stone was a mistake, but today my final stone was not a mistake,” she reflected. “I am very happy. In Omaha the loss was hard so since then we have worked hard. We will practice very hard for the Grand Final in Beijing.”
All roads lead to Beijing
It has been a busy start to 2019 and with participation at the World Women’s Curling Championship in Denmark nearing, closely followed by the Curling World Cup Grand Final, Team Kim are etching themselves as a permanent fixture in the tour’s top events.
Looking ahead to Beijing and the opportunity to face seven of the world’s very best, it is a challenge Minji Kim is relishing.
“We actually hoped to be in the final as our first goal in Sweden. But we actually won the final, so it was a changed moment after winning against the Olympic gold medallists.
"It means we can play against the best teams in the world and we can have a chance to learn and have more experience.
"We have been playing as Team Korea this year for the first time. So, we have had many chances to play in big games like the Pacific Asia Curling Championships and Curling World Cup. These are all chances to be stronger.
“It has been very successful so we just keep doing our best and we see what can happen.”