WINTER Olympic medals don’t come easily to Great Britain – only 33 in history – so to have played a part in two of them is quite an achievement.
Earlier this year in Sochi, Rhona Howie guided Britain’s women’s curling rink to Olympic bronze, 12 years after she had electrified the nation with her own famous “Stone of Destiny” gold at Salt Lake City. Some of the glow of success in Russia has been taken off by the disappointment of having her 2002 gold medal stolen while it was being exhibited at a museum in Dumfries. But Howie is looking forward to the start of a new Olympic cycle from the summer onwards and last night gave the keynote speech at the UK Coaching Summit at the Crowne Plaza in Glasgow – joined on stage by Tony McAllister, who coached the GB paralympics curling team to a bronze medal. Alongside the silver won by the British men, Sochi provided a glowing testimony to the good work being done by Scottish curling.
The summit is an example of the new professionalism and integrated systems which have developed in British sport over the past decade or so – changes Howie has been keen to take on board. After retiring from competition in 2006, she graduated from the UK Sport “Elite Coach” development programme. Now 47, she is head coach for British and Scottish women’s curling.
The Glasgow get-together, which also included a presentation from Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend, was a “great opportunity to learn from all governing bodies UK wide” according to Howie, who, speaking to The Scotsman ahead of her keynote speech, noted the difference in support systems and preparation now compared to when she was competing. “The main difference now is that coaches are funded full-time,” said Howie. “In my time we were pretty much self-coaching most of the time and only had coaches with us during competitions or voluntarily helping out at weekends. Now the coaches, thanks to funding from UK sport, are on the ice regularly with the athletes and working on their game, and that can only help them develop.
“We were very much the guinea pigs in that lottery funding had just come in and that funded us towards Salt Lake in 2002. We had four years testing out ideas on nutrition and the physical aspects, strength and conditioning. We now have a much better idea of what the ideal curler looks like.
“Physical aspects are maybe not appreciated. But games can take two-and-a-half hours and you can be playing two to three games a day at tournaments so you need to be fit, have the strength and endurance for the sweeping. It’s a tactical game, of course, and the more physically fit you are the more mentally fit you are to make the right decisions and execute properly in the big moments.”
With the young Eve Muirhead-led rink, which also included Anna Sloan, Claire Hamilton and Vicki Adams, Howie has achieved great results over the past four years, including European and world titles. So much so that, for all the relief and joy of that bronze medal play-off win over Switzerland, the eventual colour of the medal could be viewed as a slight disappointment – and a spur to improve on that in four years’ time. “The disappointing thing wasn’t the semi-final loss to Canada,” Howie reflected. “We had some bad luck early on in that one and ended up chasing against Jennifer Jones and her team, who were in unbelievable form [they won the gold with an unprecedented 100 per cent record]. The one nagging disappointment was that we had a sloppy loss to Denmark in the last round-robin game which, if we had won, would have seen us avoid the Canadians and give us a better chance at reaching the gold-medal game, and who knows what could have happened.
“But, overall, I can’t fault the girls, they did everything they could. I look at the Olympic cycle as a whole, and when you do that then it was simply sensational. To win the Europeans, become world champions and win an Olympic medal is a really top performance. Yes, an Olympic gold would have been the ultimate, but they’re young and that is something to push for now.”
Howie admits lifting her distraught and tearful charges after the semi-final defeat was the moment she really earned her corn. She recalled: “That was certainly the biggest challenge, picking them up from that. We felt it was best to give them some time to be angry with themselves, get that negativity out of their systems before focusing on the next game. It was an important time but, hey, that’s what I get paid for.”
Hamilton has left the rink so there will be changes once the funding situation is known in July. “It’s always good to have people moving about,” Howie said. “Fresh people coming in and keeping things evolving. But Claire is a world-class lead and they won’t be easy shoes to fill.”
For the moment, the Olympic heroines are enjoying their new-found fame. “It’s good for the girls to take a break, enjoy all the opportunities that have arisen and the interest in them,” said Howie. “And they certainly seem to be enjoying that side of it, I keep seeing them popping up everywhere!”
Celebrity curlers – a concept that once would seem incongruous but is now reality, thanks in a big way to the achievements of Howie as player and coach.