Eve Muirhead: Scots curling star is cool as ice

Eve Muirhead with gold medal and trophy at the World Championships in Riga this year. Picture: AP
Eve Muirhead with gold medal and trophy at the World Championships in Riga this year. Picture: AP
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Scottish world curling champion thrives on being in control

As a reigning world champion in the sport of curling, Eve Muirhead will be accustomed by now to being portrayed as an ice queen, typically by headline writers and PR people who have never met her. To meet her only brings the legend to life.

At Glasgow's piping festival in 2010. Picture: Robert Perry

At Glasgow's piping festival in 2010. Picture: Robert Perry

The 23-year-old’s eyes are the iciest shade of blue they could be without the aid of coloured contact lenses. When she employs them in conjunction with a frown to issue a piercing glare, the impression is formed of a sportsperson who will suffer fools about as readily as weak links. You would not mess with Eve Muirhead, it goes without saying, but is she really as cold off the ice as she is calculating on it?

It would be inviting ridicule to claim to know a person after half an hour in their company. But it is possible, in that time, to induce a degree of self-appraisal.

During our conversation she admits to being a “very organised” and a “very competitive” person, labels she applies with deliberate understatement because, presumably, she does not want to come across as a robot. But there is an undercurrent of seriousness about the encounter that makes it clear she wants to be taken, well, seriously. It seems safe to draw the following conclusions: Muirhead savours a challenge, she likes control and her main source of motivation is the same simple goal that has driven all of the great athletes.

If winning is everything to the Team GB skip, it is because, by and large, it is all that she has known. She famously won nothing at all at the 2010 Olympics, but either side of that she has collected gold medals at the World and European Championships as well as four Scottish titles and an unprecedented four world junior titles. If Vancouver was not an anomaly then global warming is a fairytale.

Two or three times in our conversation, winter thaws into spring and the otherwise impenetrable Muirhead unleashes a smile. Our photographer, Ian Rutherford, duly opens his shutter to capture the moment. One such occasion is when I ask her how she feels about all of the compliments that are thrown her way on Twitter, as many of which come from fans of her appearance as fans of her curling. Perhaps thrown slightly, she says: “I don’t really take any notice of that stuff, to be honest. But it is nice to have a lot of followers.”

Depending on the outcome of her second Winter Olympics quest, in Sochi next February, Muirhead might encounter a great deal more of “that stuff” because the plain fact is that she is, on top of being a ruthless sportswoman, a beautiful woman. The contrast with the Rhona Martin rink depicted cruelly as resembling “electricians’ wives” by the Times when they won Britain’s first Winter Olympic gold in 2002 could not be greater. If Muirhead and her similarly young and attractive team-mates can switch the nation back on to curling on some dark Thursday night this winter, the nation will be talking about much more than just curling the next day.

Muirhead arrives for the interview surprised at the sight of a photographer. She hadn’t accounted for this, but you would not know – her hair and make-up look immaculate. However, when asked whether a constant state of good presentation is part of her competitive routine, she steers us towards other parts of her competitive routine.

Anything resembling a sideshow to do with the Olympic Games is a distraction that this consummate professional will bodyswerve. She may look very different to Rhona Martin but all she wants is to stand beside her new head coach in the champions’ pantheon, to enjoy the relief of knowing that all the years of hard work and sacrifice were worth it. And she is acutely aware that living in the comfort of having time on one’s side is a dangerous game to play.

She was way too young and too naive in 2010 to be an Olympic skip. Nineteen? What a folly that selection proved to be, as the Scots lost five consecutive games after a decent start and tumbled out. Muirhead, not surprisingly, does not subscribe to this kneejerk view.

“I definitely don’t think I was too young. I was experienced at that time. Nineteen is not that young, really, when you look at it; not when you look at a lot of other sports,” said the Blair Atholl woman, now 23. “When you’re named captain you’ve got a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, and there’s a few things that I would do differently if I had the chance again.

“I was named skip of the team, but I wasn’t captain, if you know what I mean. Jackie [Lockhart], one of the older and more experienced girls, was more of a team captain and I was the lead; the skip. It made it a little bit trickier. I was trying to lead the team while not leading the team.

“Little things like that we have learned from because they didn’t work. Even on the ice, between ends, that’s when I kind of stepped down and Jackie stepped up and it just made it a little bit trickier. But I definitely don’t think I was too young. I’ve gained so much experience from Vancouver and think it was a blessing in disguise.

“You’ve got to learn how to lose before you win. It was one of the toughest couple of weeks of my life – I’m not going to lie – and for the weeks after it, you’re totally gutted. You went out there to get a medal and you came back without a medal and you’ve got the media on your shoulders – ‘why we didn’t medal’ – and you’ve got all this going on. But I learned so much from it. We bounced back, did well at the Worlds and now we’ve had a very successful couple of years since then.”

We meet at The Peak, the sports village in Stirling that encompasses Forthbank Stadium and a sports centre that looks no different from any sports centre in the Central Belt until you discover the ice rink at the back, and then the banner proudly proclaiming this to be the training base of a world champion.

We are at The Peak talking about peaks, namely why it is inadvisable in curling to approach one competition more seriously than another. The European Championships are a week away and the aim in Stavanger is to make winning a habit again before the Sochi Olympics in February.

When she talks about last winter, Muirhead claims that it could hardly have gone any better, which is a neat trick of self-motivation because now all she thinks about is how she can improve on it. Last March in Riga, with the help of Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray, Claire Hamilton and Anna Sloan, she engineered an 8-7 semi-final win over Canada and then a 6-5 win over Sweden – whose lead, Margaretha Sigfridsson, had inflicted two defeats on Muirhead en route to the final – to become the youngest female skip to have worn the world crown.

The daughter of Gordon, who was a world champion as alternate to Hammy McMillan in 1999, Muirhead is clearly from athletic stock but blessed with a dexterity so perfect that you wonder if she was subjected in utero to genetic modification. Besides becoming the best young curler in the world she has somehow found the time to lower her handicap to scratch and become an accomplished piper. Perhaps one day she will revisit the offers of golf scholarships in the US, but for now it is all about Stavanger 2013 and Sochi 2014. She will not be able to retain her world title next March, because the Royal Caledonian Curling Club have deemed that the national championships that serve as qualification will take place at the very time when Team Muirhead are pursuing Olympic glory in Vladimir Putin’s favourite holiday resort.

If Muirhead is seething about this now she does not show it, perhaps realising that when her career is done and dusted few will recall a prize that eluded her in New Brunswick when there will be great feats to look back on from Riga and, ideally, Sochi. “The Europeans will be a good stepping stone towards the Olympic Games. If we don’t come away with gold it’s not the end of the world. We’re just going to train as hard as we can, maybe give it another 10 per cent, and if we play the way we know we can play at these two events, results will take care of themselves.

“I think European curling is in good hands right now. If you were to look at the World Order of Merit I think eight out of the top ten teams are from Europe, and two or three years ago it would have been ten out of ten Canadian.

“Every event you play in, you have to give 100 per cent. A lot of people say you’ve got to make sure you peak at the right time, blah blah blah, but I believe just in consistency. If you can be consistent for the whole duration of the season you’re never going to be far away, and last year I think we were very consistent.

“You don’t decide to go easy in any championship. I’m one of the most competitive people out there and you’ve got to make sure and try to win as much as you can.”

There it is: the “W” word. There are a lot of female athletes in Scotland today averse to the idea that merely taking part is worth celebrating, and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will highlight this. The Winter Olympics should do the same, and if it doesn’t there will be questions asked about whether the money could have been better spent.

The Scottish-based British Olympic curling programme for the 2010-2014 cycle will come in at a cost of £5million, an investment split equally between Sportscotland and UK Sport. Team Muirhead are supported by a breathtaking roll call of experts, primarily through the Sportscotland Institute of Sport. As well as head coach Martin they benefit from the guidance of Malcolm Fairweather, the institute’s head of innovation and sports science, performance analyst Kenny More, physiotherapist Maggie Bush, strength-and-conditioning guru David Leith, sports psychologist Misha Botting and logistics manager Susie Elms.

It is a far cry from when Gordon Muirhead was competing at the same level 14 years ago, his daughter emphasises.

“The support is second to none. I know a lot of countries look up to us to see what we are doing and they say ‘here is Team Scotland’ when we are travelling and we turn up with three or four support staff. It does make a huge, huge difference,” she says.

“A couple of years back I wasn’t involved with the institute or anything like that and you just realise how lucky we are now. It’s great to know we can just focus on our competition, ice and gym work and know that behind the scenes you’ve got all these support staff working for you. It takes a lot of pressure off your shoulders.

“Dad has always said to me that his warm-up was a fag and a cup of coffee. It has changed slightly since then. We always have the same warm-up routine through Maggie Bush, our physio. She does a lot of pre-game and post-game things where you engage the right muscles and get your heart rate going a little bit. You spend a good 15-20 minutes prior to every game getting warmed up.

“A lot of curlers are known, through the sweeping, for shoulder niggles so it’s just work to make sure that the right muscles are warmed up so you don’t get injured. Day in day out, our strength and conditioning with Dave Leith up in the gym, that’s when you want to work on your core stability so that when you come to the ice, you don’t get injuries and you can become more consistent.

“Having a psychologist is great as well – leading into Latvia and the World Championships, Misha really helped us as a team and as a unit. The three girls I curl with I basically live with 24/7. You’re in a hotel room with them, you eat with them, you practise with them, you go to the gym with them, everything – you’ve got to know what to say to these guys and know when they need their free time. Misha has been really helpful with this. Being the leader is a tough job.”

Tough job or not, Muirhead wears responsibility as comfortably as her curling shoes. Since her teens she has known that the next “Stone of Destiny” could be hers to deliver, and with it the accountability for the Olympic dreams of at least three other women. It might transpire that she gets one, two or even three more shots at the Olympics if Sochi does not work out. Equally, Scottish curling is hardly a talent vaccuum. This could be her last chance.

“We’re definitely not known as one of the young teams now. I think we’re known as one of the more experienced teams, even though we are still young. And I know the way that curling’s going, like a lot of other sports: the average age is coming down,” she says. “You look back at the London Olympics and there were swimmers who were giving up at 16 because that was their career over. In curling, it is becoming similar. I’m not saying it’s 16, but I am at the peak of my career right now and I’m only 23.

“I think we’ve still got huge opportunities ahead of us. I know we’ve got other countries chasing at our tails so we’ve just got to make sure and try and keep that one step ahead of everyone. We know how to win major events now, so I think, going into Sochi, it’s not going to be different.

“You keep growing older, don’t you? You can’t keep using that as the excuse – ‘oh I’ve still got time’. The last three years have flown by. I can’t believe the Olympics is in February. That’s crazy, and I can’t believe London was two years ago. But that’s the life of an athlete, I guess. Everyone thinks it’s a glamorous, joyful lifestyle but really it’s tough. It is very tough. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of ups, a lot of downs and we train our butts off.”

Having completed a double shift of fitness and ice work that morning, plus a spot of filming with the BBC, Muirhead’s next duty after our encounter is another interview with a major international newspaper. Perhaps The Scotsman helped in some small way to break the ice for the New York Times. Then again, she might not interview quite as well at room temperature.