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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

South Korea's 'Garlic Girls' spicing up Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang

Curlers from the host nation, ranked eighth in world, have emerged medal contenders after beating top teams, including Canada

They are dubbed the "Garlic Girls" but go by the names Pancake, Yogurt, Steak, Cookie and Sunny - meet the South Korean curlers who are whipping up a recipe for success at the Olympics.

Ranked eighth in the world, the Koreans have emerged medal contenders at the Pyeongchang Games. After stunning top teams like Canada, Switzerland and Sweden, they were the first to advance to Friday's semi-finals.

Their giant-killing feats on the ice have drawn big crowds in a country where curling is little known. Their skills have wooed fans while their affectionate nicknames have added a light-hearted twist to their feats on the ice.

"I think the names are so fun," said Oh Ja-young, a spectator from Bundang. "But if they weren't doing so well, I wouldn't pay attention to their names."

All of them have "KIM" written on the back of their uniforms, the most common Korean surname that they share. To minimise confusion, Kim Eun-jung, Kim Seon-yeong, Kim Kyeong-ae, Kim Yeong-mi and alternate Kim Cho-hi decided to adopt nicknames - and a brainstorming session took place at the breakfast table.

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But in contrast to their fun nicknames, the curlers mean business on ice.

"They play with a lot of passion, very technically sound," US Curling Association chief executive Rick Patzke told AFP. "It's great to see the home crowd getting behind them here."

The curlers were apparently unprepared for the fervent flag-waving home crowd that packs the stadium each time they play. They entered the tournament as outsiders and saw the crowds build up as they went from win to win.

"We are surprised that curling can be so welcomed in Korea," said the team's coach Kim Min-jung. South Korea sent its first curling team to the Olympics in 2014. "We've always wanted to make curling a more popular and common recreational sport in Korea and we're happy we are getting there."

Only last month, curling was considered an obscure sport in South Korea. Now, memes of the South Korean curlers have gone viral online and several fans are posting good-humoured clips mimicking the sport with cleaning supplies.

Despite the sudden spike in the team's popularity, they are no flash in the pan - they have been in the sport for more than a decade. Their hometown of Uiseong - a rural town of around 54,000 people famous for garlic farming - built a curling centre in 2006 with funding from the local government.

As a result, many students at Uiseong joined the curling team, including the Olympians. They struggled with funding for training and struggled to attract fans in the past, but not any more.

"We always thought we could come this far," the team coach said. "Now I'm careful to say this, but we thought of doing even better."

But the curlers had no idea they have emerged as Korean celebrities - they switched their mobile phones off at the start of the competition to avoid any distraction. "They can just tell that they are receiving a lot of attention by the number of fans that come to the stadium," coach Kim said.

However, Kim added the curlers are aware they are being called the "Garlic Girls" after the hometown's main product. "We don't like garlic," she said. "We would just like to be called 'Team Kim'."