Eve Muirhead required no extra ends nor ‘Stone of Destiny’ dramas as she fulfilled an overdue ambition by sweeping Great Britain’s women’s curling team to Olympic gold at the Ice Cube in Beijing on Sunday.
Twenty years after Rhona Martin slid her final stone down the Ogden Ice Sheet in Salt Lake City, Muirhead and her team-mates Vicky Wright, Jennifer Dodds, Hailey Duff and alternate Mili Smith swept to an emphatic 10-3 win over Japan.
The comprehensive nature of Muirhead’s victory belied a remarkable battle against adversity her team had endured since they initially failed to qualify for the Olympics at last year’s World Championships in Calgary.
A pair of positive Covid tests prior to the final qualifiers almost derailed the team’s preparations, and their stuttering progress through the round-robin phase in Beijing left them on the brink of elimination.
But three days after they were forced to rely on two other results and a mere 10cm advantage via the average accuracy of the pre-match draw shot challenge simply to stay alive in the tournament, and two after beating the odds from a four-point first end deficit against Sweden, Muirhead led her team to the easiest of victories with an end to spare.
‘This is a moment I dreamed of as a young child,’ said a plainly emotional Muirhead afterwards. ‘Having lost two semi-finals then come through that great battle against Sweden, we knew this was an opportunity we might never get again.
‘It has definitely been a rollercoaster journey for the whole team. From not finishing the top six at the world championships, we had to come back and it was hard.
‘There were times I wanted to throw my shoes in the cupboard and never get them out again. But we all came back and got this new team together and came through the Europeans and the qualifiers.
‘There have been ups and downs, there have been a couple of positive tests, but here we are, five very healthy girls with gold medals around our necks.’
The parallels with Martin – now Rhona Howie, who was watching from the stands in her role as a BBC pundit – were evident in the way Muirhead’s team had edged into the knockout stages with an underwhelming 5-4 record.
The Japanese endured a similar passage to the final, but unlike Niklas Edin’s experienced Swedish rink who had sunk the dreams of the Great Britain men’s team so ruthlessly less than 24 hours earlier, skip Satsuki Fujisawa was unable to wrest the initiative away from Muirhead.
A two in the first end gave Muirhead the advantage and she was centimetres from a steal in the second end, Fujisawa squeezing in to take one.
Muirhead, still smarting from her missed shot to win bronze against the same team in Pyeongchang four years earlier, stole another in the fifth to extend her team’s lead to 4-1 at the half-way stage.
But the defining moment arrived in the seventh end, when Muirhead conjured a brilliant raised take-out – effectively a plant – that knocked the Japanese stone out of the house and scored four to all but seal victory.
Muirhead responded by raising a fist to the air, surely conscious that the moment she had craved for throughout her career was finally hers. That moment arrived after the ninth end, when Muirhead rolled in for a two and Fujisawa conceded that the game was up.
Her victory also completed a remarkable personal journey for Muirhead, who was the youngest skip to win a curling world title in 2013 but had only a bronze medal from 2014 to show from her three previous Olympic appearances.
In contrast, her team comprised a group of Olympic debutants who fought their way through a rigorous selection process, a final pool of nine potential contenders, to earn the opportunity to sweep their way to gold.
‘It was emotional, for sure,’ admitted Muirhead. ‘I managed to hold it in until the flag was getting raised – it’s a moment that I’ve been waiting for for so many years.
‘I’ve been close so many times but I just haven’t been over the line. The girls have helped me become a better curler and they’ve also helped me become a better person. Without them, I wouldn’t be here and it’s such an incredible, incredible moment.’
Twenty years ago it was Martin’s team of self-styled Ayrshire housewives who kept viewers up after midnight back in the UK to savour their moment of triumph. This time it was Muirhead’s team winning in style, the 10-3 scoreline tying the biggest win in an Olympic curling final since the sport was reintroduced to the Olympics in 1998.
In Beijing, the narrative was forged not only around Muirhead but her team-mate and vice-skip Wright, who will leave the heady atmosphere of Olympic triumph and take her medal home to show the patients at the NHS hospital in Larbert where she works next week.
‘They would have stayed up to watch last night,’ said Wright. ‘I can’t wait to see them when I go back. I told them I’d do my best to bring a medal back and to take a gold one, I can’t believe it.’