WHEN the Scottish women’s rink take to the ice in the port town of Stavanger in Norway on Saturday, they will do so under the full glare of publicity in this curling-mad corner of Scandinavia.
Always tough competitors, this time Eve Muirhead’s rink arrive as the undisputed best in the world and hot favourites to win gold at the European Curling Championships.
It’s little wonder because 2013 has been a dream year of almost unfettered and unprecedented success in which they won the double of world championships in Riga and the grand slam Players championship. That was then followed by a second consecutive grand slam win at the Autumn Gold Curling Classic, the first time that any rink from outside Canada has ever won back-to-back grand slams. After winning silver at the European Championships in 2010, gold in Moscow in 2011 and then silver at Karlstad last year, the expectation being placed upon skip Muirhead’s rink is palpable: everyone else sees them as the only team to beat and, more importantly, that’s how they now see themselves.
Their phenomenal run of form could hardly have come at a better time. In three months’ time, the Scottish rink will be representing Great Britain at the Winter Olympics in Sochi in southern Russia, with many of their fiercest opponents also appearing in Stavanger. These include Anna Sidorova’s Olympic hosts Russia, who are Scotland’s fearsomely tough opening day opponents, and Margaretha Sigfridsson’s Swedish rink, which Scotland narrowly beat to become world champions.
Understandably, virtually all of the pre-tournament publicity has surrounded the elfin figure of skip Eve Muirhead, a prodigious talent who has been setting records that may never be beaten and who is the winner of virtually every bauble in the sport at the tender age of just 23. Photogenic and articulate, she has been the spokeswoman for a remarkably young and tight-knit team with an average age of 23 which is drawn from a wide swathe of the country and which also includes three other extraordinary sportswomen in Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams and Claire Hamilton, plus alternate Lauren Gray. But guiding the team over the past three years has been Rhona Howie, pictured below, the woman whose captaincy of the 2002 British rink which won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City resulted in a surge of interest in the sport and led to Howie – previously known as Rhona Martin – becoming the only curler to be inducted into the Scottish Sport Hall of Fame. After three years studying to become an elite coach, she was brought on board in 2011 as the head of Scottish women’s curling after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, when 19-year-old Muirhead was part of a Scottish rink which arrived with high hopes but left deflated after winning only three of nine and failing to qualify for the medal matches after nail-biting defeats by the USA, Denmark and Canada.
“The European Championships are a big deal and it’s important that we win to keep up the momentum and because in the final analysis top-level sport is all about winning,” Howie says. “But we’re viewing this whole year, and that includes these championships, in the context of the build-up to Sochi. That means that winning is important, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all – all we’re interested in is whether we can perform to our full potential when we’re under pressure because if we do that then the results will follow.”
Howie’s whole raison d’etre since she took over the stewardship of the 16-strong squad of elite Scottish women curlers in 2011 has been to prepare this group to win at Sochi, and she views everything through that prism. As she says: “I’ve also worked to prepare them for the whole intensity and scope of the Olympics experience because it’s like nothing they will come across at other curling tournaments”. On the skills front, like GB cycling coach Dave Brailsford, she is working on the basis that an incremental improvement across a whole raft of areas will bring about a pronounced upturn in performance. So far it’s an approach that seems to be bearing fruit.
“Curling is very different from my day,” she says. “Where physios, sports psychologists, nutritionists, and strength and conditioning teams were just beginning to come in when I was competing, they were far more generic than they are now. We’d get a nutrition programme or an exercise programme that was given to the whole squad, whereas now they are specifically tailored to each member of the team. We also spend a lot more time on the ice and use video analysts far more extensively than in my day as we focus on the three Ts – technical, tactical and team dynamics.”
Scotland have had to develop because countries that used to be also-rans are pouring resources into the sport. Countries such as Latvia, Denmark and the Czech Republic, which used to compete but were rarely competitive, now have full-time squads who can upset Scotland if they are not at their best, as Scotland found at the last Olympics when they unexpectedly lost to Denmark.
Yet Scotland have a new-found focus thanks to Howie.
“I loved competing, but this is every bit as good,” she says. “Although you have limited control once the girls step out on to the ice, I get exactly the same buzz from winning with them as I did when I was skip. Like them I’m looking forward to Stavanger and then Sochi, it’s an amazing time for Scottish curling.”