One of David Coleman’s most memorable pieces of commentary came just as Sebastian Coe was about to lose the 1980 Olympics 800 metres final to his great rival. “Those blue eyes,” said Coleman of the lethally lurking Steve Ovett, “like chips of ice.” But isn’t it a description that better fits Eve Muirhead?
Immediately after Scotland’s curling queen has hurled a rock down a gully, the TV cameras focus on her eyes. The pictures will catch up with the stone eventually, in good time for it reaching its intended target, either to establish a blockade or blooter the opposition to the far corners, but initially the drama is all in Muirhead’s expression.
Small woodland creatures would shiver and shake were they to be trapped in this gaze, then be stunned into paralysis before the inevitable grisly end. Maybe this is the fate of would-be mates as well because as Muirhead will tell me, explaining her current loveless state: “I’m very picky, you see.”
And don’t forget that the 27-year-old’s game is totally wrapped up in ice. Great expanses of it are where she spends all her waking hours, and most of her non-waking ones as well. The ice is cold and hard and pretty hazardous to mere mortals like you or I (especially you). But Muirhead’s peepers give as good as they get, bouncing off it, turning ever steelier, seemingly almost android.
When the curling gets especially tense, we might wonder if she possesses the most formidable, most unforgiving eyes of all Scottish womankind. Nicola Sturgeon can’t compete and neither can the River City femmes fatale. Not today, though. Shorn of the black-ringed mascara she favours for elite competition, they’re soft and friendly. Now, profiles of Muirhead often mention that she doesn’t suffer fools. This fool, though, decides to chance it…
Silly question, perhaps, but when is she at her most frivolous?
She smiles and picks up her phone. “Look at this,” she says, flicking to a photograph of her rink – Vicki Adams, Lauren Gray and Anna Sloan – during last month’s European Championships semi-final against host nation Switzerland. All four girls are heads-back laughing; something has amused them hugely.
Muirhead explains: “The photo went on to our website and the Swedish girls [beaten by Scotland in the final] came up to us the next day and asked: ‘What was so funny?’
“It was between ends. We’d been concentrating for ever. But suddenly one of us said: ‘Who was your first kiss and where?’ We all had to tell our stories. For some reason the others found mine absolutely hilarious.
“The Swedish girls were like: ‘What, you were talking about that actually on the ice?’”
“Right in the middle of a game?”
The Scotland team are no fembots. “This rink is at its best when we’re relaxed,” explains Muirhead. “We like to have a laugh and we’ll talk hair and make-up like any bunch of girls. Last week in Glasgow we had a great time mucking about with facemasks. We’re a fun team and we know how to switch off… and then switch back on again.”
Now is the moment for the game-heads. The Scotland foursome are about to turn into the Team GB quartet for the Winter Olympics in South Korea, hoping for the same podium spot come the final day. Can they do it? “We’ve been ridiculously pushing ourselves in training,” says the Blair Atholl-born skip, “and we’ve been ridiculously pushing ourselves in competition. I really think we’re in a great place right now and the scary thing is we could win that gold medal.”
We’re in Stirling, at the National Curling Academy where Muirhead lives, eats and breathes her beloved roaring game and she’s got just enough time to catch her breath over a mug of peppermint tea before packing for Pyeongchang.
The previous evening she’d been in Manchester for the kitting-out parade. The athletes were handed so much clobber that it wouldn’t all fit on their bus, Muirhead eventually returning north with three full suitcases. “On top of competition gear there’s Games Village-wear, podium-wear, opening ceremony stuff, our Princess Anne suits,” she says. Presumably she’ll want to personalise this haul for Wednesday’s big departure, add a few bits which are all about Eve, and ensure she’s not without her usual creature-comforts for such expeditions.
“Oh yes,” she says, “and it’s a very good question: what am I never without? Um… porridge. I love my oats and always take my own. I’m celiac and there’s too much of a risk of not being able to find gluten-free in some of the places we go. So I’ll be taking lots of boxes of Perk!er, the plain variety, pretty boring, although I love to dollop on peanut butter and will have to find room for a kilo tub of that.”
Just when you thought the curling, golfing, bagpipe-skirling Eve Muirhead couldn’t be any more of a Scottish cliche, she reveals herself to be a porridge aficionado.
It was eight years ago that she emerged, a teenager with a tattoo and a temper. When the women’s team failed to reach the semi-finals in the Vancouver Games of 2010 she snapped her broom on the ice and at that stage the inkwork – the Olympic Rings on her lower back – might have seemed presumptuous. But four years later in Sochi, with no let up in the “Ice Maiden” headlines supplemented by the occasional “Ice, Ice, Baby”, she steered her girls to the bronze medal.
That inspired another tattoo – some of the design detail of the Russian gong on her left wrist. “I promised my mum that I wouldn’t get any more; you know what mums are like about that kind of stuff. But if we win the gold this time…”
That European title has encouraged Muirhead in the belief that the rink can sweep their way to the ultimate prize. “If you’d asked me two years ago if we could do it I would have been unsure. We’d just changed our coach; we’d just changed the team. When you first kick out with new people maybe the results don’t go your way and you get anxious. Oh god, will it come together? But it has.
“Myself, I can bring what I’ve learned from Vancouver and Sochi, what has hopefully made me a better competitor. The advice before Vancouver was to treat the Games the same as any other competition but I soon discovered that was impossible; the Olympics are on a completely different scale. In Sochi I tried to embrace the whole experience, village life and everything. Sochi was crazy, amazing, mental. I shut down my social media and dived right in and will be doing that again in Pyeongchang.”
Four years ago, ten seconds proved fatal. “We were ahead against Denmark but lost a stupid three and then a stupid steal. Complacency isn’t the right word but maybe we took the foot off a tiny bit and made the wrong call. I regret that massively and it can’t happen again.”
Muirhead is curling’s poster girl, smouldering in soft focus, brush in hand. A sport which used to have the image of “housewives on ice” has been only too happy to capitalise on her highly marketable looks. The calendar girl says all the shoots have been in the best possible taste, otherwise she wouldn’t have agreed to them. Only when invited on to a celebrity edition of Mastermind did she feel compromised. “Can you imagine me doing that? I couldn’t think of a specialist subject.”
While reluctant to take the credit for any change of perception, she feels it. “Before Sochi if I said I was a curler people would look at me strangely: ‘What’s that? Oh aye, with a brush, going mad.’ Now me and the girls will walk through an airport and the pilots will recognise us and maybe someone will go: ‘That’s her, that’s the lassie, the one who missed with the last shot!’ Curling has got a cooler image now and that’s great.”
Nevertheless, despite the upsurge in interest, Muirhead is compelled to ask: “Where are all the nerds?” Watching an event in Perth recently she scanned the crowd in vain for kids as young as her when she got hooked on the sport. But then she was definitely unusual, a bit of a freak.
Her father, Gordon, was twice a silver medallist at the world championships and Muirhead used to badger him to be allowed to tag along to local tournaments. “Dad would say: ‘I’m leaving at 6am so if you’re not down in the kitchen I’ll go without you.’ I loved curling before I even stepped on to the ice and aged eight and nine would happily sit at the side of the rink all day, Irn-Bru in my hand, taking everything in.
“Dad had these old videos of classic games and when I started playing I watched them non-stop. That’s how I learned, freeze-framing to check what these top guys did with their hips and so on. That was my secret life for a bit as I never told my school friends I liked curling. Maybe there was a poster of Westlife on my bedroom wall – I used to fancy Shane – but while the rest of the girls were catching the train to Perth to go shopping or to Pizza Hut I was playing in my first competitions. Looking back I’m really glad that was my childhood otherwise I wouldn’t be here today, heading off to my third Olympics.”
We shouldn’t forget about Rhona Martin in this story. In 2002 the Ayrshire housewife threw the “Stone of Destiny” to win Britain a first Winter Olympic gold since Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s ice-dance Bolero 18 years before. While many in the six million-strong telly audience watching the action from Salt Lake City were still getting to grips with curling’s rules, a 12-year-old expert was cheering wildly. “It was a school night but I was allowed to stay up,” says Muirhead. “Rhona was brilliant and a real inspiration to me.”
The National Curling Academy, from where this bid for gold is being launched, is a £3.15million facility at The Peak, Stirling’s sports village. Opened last summer, Martin’s protege is still marvelling at it. The older rink still operates next door but the elite competitors no longer have to hit the phones in the morning to secure time on the ice.
Muirhead says: “The curling community has been talking about a place like this for the last 20 years. Maybe it’s arrived when I’m at my peak – I’ll tell you in a few weeks. But the academy is definitely needed. Every year curling gets better and better and better, we have to do the same. A phrase I like is ‘Winning is hard’. I think I’ve used it more times in the past 12 months than ever before.”
She’s not the only member of her family to benefit from the centre as brothers Thomas and Glen are in the men’s squad for Pyeongchang. “I’m so incredibly proud that we’re all going to these Olympics,” she says. “The three of us have always been competitive – from battles over the TV remote onwards, basically – but deep down we’ve always wanted the best for each other.”
Mum Lin will be at the Games but Gordon has a prior engagement. “He’s competing in the Scottish Seniors at Braehead at the same time. Good on him for that but I’m sure he’ll be watching my scores just as I’ll be looking for his.”
So can Muirhead win Olympic gold to add to those at European and world level? “Winning is hard,” she repeats. “Canada will be tough to beat – they always are – and although we defeated Sweden to win the Euros they’ve got a determined young rink. Really, you can’t write off any of the teams.”
Muirhead and the girls, though, will give it their best shot. This is when they hope all that dedication pays off. “All those 6am alarm calls, pitch black outside, car covered in snow, gym sessions and the mental work you need to survive three hours and more on the ice,” adds Muirhead. “We’ll see… ”
At school Muirhead never had ambitions to do anything else. She was an accomplished enough golfer to win US scholarships and her bagpiping was enabling her to travel the globe. But for her it was always going to be chucking 44lbs of solid granite.
Formerly scratch, she now golfs off three. She still gets to pick up the pipes at friends’ weddings so what of her own romantic aspirations? “Yes, I do have them. I’d like to get married and have kids one day but, while I’ve had relationships off and on, I’m not in one right now because I’m afraid I just don’t have time. I’ve pretty much dedicated my life to curling, haven’t I? But that’s fine. It’s what I do and I love it.”
Now Muirhead must get back to her packing. Don’t forget the porridge, I say, and be sure to take some DVDs and a good book. “Oh no,” she says, “the other girls will have their Netflix and things to read but I don’t have the attention span. On the plane I’ll be the one watching the moving map the whole journey – what a saddo! But I just want to get there and I just want to get on the ice.”