They called it the Stone of Destiny. But who could foretell what would unfold following the throw heard all around the world.
Former curler Rhona Howie’s life is so often boiled down to one moment on a day of days in Utah. This is particularly the case now, when she is back in the public eye and memories of her gold medal-winning shot in 2002 are inevitably stirred. “All you ever see is that last stone. I was thinking this driving home yesterday…”
Already expert at keeping appointments with destiny, she has also kept hers with The Scotsman. This is despite travelling through the night from Manchester to her home in Ayrshire after waiting four hours for an AA call-out when her car failed to start following a stint covering the Winter Olympics from a BBC studio. It provided plenty of time for her to reflect, as she tends to have to do every four years around this time.
“We went through nine round-robin games and two play-off games and yet all people think about is that last stone,” she says. “They do not realise you competed for 40 hours beforehand to get to that point. If I went back and watched all those games now that would be funny. I only have a video of it and I do not have a video player any longer.”
That is not all that’s gone. Sixteen years ago, Rhona Howie was called Rhona Martin. Everything was different. She had two young children, a husband and a gold medal. She has since retrieved a name – Howie is her maiden name – but lost, or at least been robbed of, the medal.
Andrew and Jennifer, her children from her since dissolved marriage to Keith, are now grown up. They are just not near enough for their mother’s liking. Both are currently in New Zealand for an undetermined length of time. Howie, who spent Christmas on the other side of the world with her children, is at a crossroads.
And then there’s the saga of the gold medal won so memorably in Salt Lake City as skip of a team comprising five Scottish ladies cast as “housewives with brooms”. Six million people stayed up late into the night to watch. While few would claim to be experts, curling still manages to leave so many in a trance every four years when it steps back into the limelight, as is happening now.
It took an invitation to appear on the pitch at Murrayfield before a Scotland rugby match following their return for Howie to be able to picture just how huge were the viewing figures. The 60,000 people there that day seemed vast enough. She had been watched by a hundred times that number.
Flag-waving crowds gathered to welcome them back, first to London and then home to Glasgow. They were the first British gold medal winners at a Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean and the first British curling champions since 1924.
The mantle of celebrity was suddenly thrust upon their shoulders. There were appearances on A Question of Sport, Masterchef and even Lloyd Grossman’s Through the Keyhole. “That was when I stayed in Dunlop,” recalls Howie. “They took away things like stones that made it too obvious!” There was an invitation to the Royal Box at Wimbledon to watch Tim Henman and also to the GB Olympic ball.
“It all took a bit of getting used to,” she says, with reference to a media profile that suddenly shot through the roof. “They would phone up when Scotland needed a new football manager or something and ask my opinion! I am just a curler! That year we went to the GB ball, where we had not been to before. Everyone was saying ‘oh look there’s the curlers’. Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent were like ‘oh you’re the curlers’. It was surreal. It did put curling on the map with other, more established sports.”
It wasn’t all sweetness and light. Margaret Morton, the fifth alternate, complained of being “brushed off” on their return. “It was hard,” says Howie. “They [reserves] put in as much training and hard work as every player in the team. The fifth player does it all as well then sits on the bench. At the Olympics they had to play to get a medal whereas at other events they don’t. We put Margaret on to get a medal. It was only fair as she had done the work too in the build up. I saw her recently at a party but never had the chance to speak to her.”
Howie’s in touch with her other teammates. Debbie Knox is in Fife, Janice Rankin is in Elgin and Fiona MacDonald is based in Inverness. “Fiona texted me today: ‘Oh I saw you on the BBC!’ ” Howie reports. “She is just about to take her son on to the ice for the first time she was telling me. It is hard because we are all so spread out but we meet up every so often. We do try for wee reunions. This is 16 years, so the next one is 20 years. We had a ten-year bash with the coaches.”
It’s bleakly ironic that Morton, despite complaints of being “cold-shouldered” and fears about being cast as the forgotten member of the team, has a medal. Meanwhile, Howie, who displayed such steely nerves to clinch the title, does not. This is where the stone of destiny slides towards a particularly dark corner. Howie’s determination to continue spreading the word on curling’s behalf cost her the most prized item from her career.
She agreed to lend her medal to a museum in Dumfries. “It was a great exhibition they were having, curling through the years,” she explains. “It was in a locked cabinet. I was not concerned. But then I got this phone call to say there has been a break-in, your medal has gone. I suppose at the time I was like: ‘bugger it’. It never really computed that I might never see it again. As time went on, the police were getting no leads, and then they found them. There was three of them, they managed to get two to court.”
In September last year two men were found guilty of theft and jailed for a total of seven years. Howie delivered a victim impact statement in court.
“I basically had to say what I put in to winning that medal. I was more than gutted when the reality hit me I was not getting it back.
“They [the accused] did not speak, they said nothing. I thought the judge might say something like: ‘You tell us where it is I will reduce the sentence’. But I don’t think it works like that.”
The stolen items have never been located. Each medal awarded in 2002 was unique, designed like the river rocks found in the streams and rivers of Utah and made using 22-carat gold. “It does not matter if it is curling, bobsleigh or whatever sport you do, kids’ faces light up when they touch a medal,” says Howie. “The fact I cannot take it into schools and things, that is what hurts me more than the fact it’s not sitting in the house.”
Howie and the British Olympic Association (BOA) have petitioned the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for a new one. “After the court case I have accepted I am never going to get it back,” she says. “The IOC are saying no, they don’t like to replace medals. But now the court case has happened and it has proved it was stolen. They must get all kinds of requests. People go out all the time on nights out and leave their medals in taxis…
“But we have proved that yes it was stolen and no I am not getting it back. Mike Hay at the BOA has been really good and he was obviously our head coach at the time. He wrote a letter to back us up and I have written a statement and put the police report in. That is all going off to the IOC.
“But they are really busy just now replacing medals because of the Russian doping scandal where medals were removed and other countries need replacements. I hope it is a positive response but they could come back and say no, they are not replacing it. I know it will never be the same medal. But it will be nice to have something.”
She fought the urge to scream in frustration at the men sitting in the dock. “I wanted to ask: ‘Why do you want it? It is no good to you. You can’t do anything with it. Just give it back to me. It is no good to you’. They can’t sell it, that’s what I find weird. That is why they think it has been melted down.
“I was asked before the case about what I thought it was worth. But you can’t put a value on it. It is sentimental value. Whether it cost five grand or however much gold is worth now that’s irrelevant. If you handed me £5,000 that would not make up for me not having my Olympic medal.”
Presented with a choice of destinations to meet, it’s fitting we eventually plump for Dobbies garden centre outside Ayr. It does seem as if Rhona Martin comes into bloom every four years.
She returns to being Rhona Martin for the purposes of newspaper features – “well, when I won it I was Rhona Martin,” she accepts. She has long since reverted to her maiden name of Howie. Her efforts at reinvention were helped just over two years ago when someone so associated with curling became high performance manager for… Bowls Scotland. She left the post in September having clearly found it a frustrating period in her life, though she stresses she loved working with her staff, coaches and athletes.
She doesn’t wish to go into too much depth about what happened. One consequence, as well as meaning she is back on the job hunt, is that she won’t, as planned, be heading to the Commonwealth Games this spring as Team Scotland’s lawn bowls team manager (although her niece, Scotland hockey player Ali Howie, will be there she’s happy to note).
Howie left Bowls Scotland, she says, “due to unforeseen external pressures”, describing her position “as no longer tenable”. She decides to leave it there as far as an explanation goes. “That’s fine,” she says.
It’s also a reason why she’s not in Pyeongchang, where it feels like she should be. Expecting to be in Australia, she couldn’t take time off from what she thought she’d be doing now– preparing Scottish bowlers for their big moment on the Gold Coast. The BBC is tapping into her wisdom in a studio in Salford, though since she is booked to appear for only two more days at the start of next week one would suggest she is being criminally under-used.
Howie has already provided one of the moments of the Winter Olympics coverage so far with a reference to “Scotland” rather than Team GB. It was an understandable slip of the tongue – all the competitors in both the men’s and women’s teams are Scottish – that had anchor Clare Balding spluttering out a correction.
“I was being so careful not to as well,” says Howie. “Because they are really strict about Team GB. But then the camera turned round and there were two big Scottish flags in the crowd. Normally they ask for them to be taken down because it’s Team GB. So I saw that and thought: ‘oh, they are allowed to fly Scottish flags’. Then in my head I just blurted out Scotland… and Clare called it out, which is fine. I am glad she did. I was like: ‘oh sorry, yes, the British team’.
“I saw on Facebook people writing ‘ha ha funny, Rhona getting told off by Clare’. We represent Scotland at every championship we go to and then all of a sudden it is Britain, which is fantastic for the players but the commentators suffer…”
It seems strange to be meeting with Howie while there’s curling going on – the British women’s team are building towards a good win over China in their attempt to reach the knockout stage. Texted updates bleep from her phone. Howie is particularly good on Eve Muirhead, the GB women’s skip who is planning to follow in her famous antecedent’s footprints. It’s a younger person’s game now. “Oh we are very different,” says Howie. “Eve has been skipping from a very early age so she has years of experience going into this Olympics. We are both determined and want to succeed.”
At 27, Muirhead is appearing in her third Olympics. Howie was 36 when she won gold at her first Olympics. Curling was only reintroduced as an Olympic sport in 1998. She is 51 now, too young to be contemplating her mortality. She does feel it’s time to concentrate on herself again.
“I put all my focus in the kids,” says Howie. “Now they are in New Zealand I am lost. But everything that’s happened recently has put things into perspective for me. I have put everything into my kids to make sure they had a good upbringing and now they have gone. It is time to look at my future, and where I am going. Priorities keep changing.”
Not far from where we are is Ailsa Craig, curling’s ground zero. The volcanic plug is where nearly all curling stones start life once hewn from the granite.
Howie has lived her whole life in the shadow of the island. Her family owned a holiday cottage on the coast. For so long it was just a picturesque lump of rock. But as her curling career developed she began to appreciate its relevance. Her identity is so wrapped up in the island, or at least what is produced from it.
She was gifted a gold-painted stone by Kays of Ayr, her equivalent of the gold post boxes dotted around the country to honour gold medal-winning summer Olympians. At least theft of the 44lbs winning stone from Salt Lake City might prove trickier. It was bought by the BOA and is on display at the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Wherever she roams in the future, she knows where she hopes to end up. Not just with a view of Ailsa Craig, but on it. Howie wishes to have her ashes scattered there, “amid the granite boulders and puffins”. Fearing it’s a downbeat note on which to end, she adds that at least she has one less thing to worry about when the time comes. Which of her two children gets her gold medal.