Garlic Girls: South Korean curlers the rock stars of Winter Olympics

South Korea’s women’s curling team celebrate after beating Russian athletes during their match at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. (AP)
Updated 23 February 2018
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Garlic Girls: South Korean curlers the rock stars of Winter Olympics

GANGNEUNG, South Korea: Forget Lindsey Vonn and Adam Rippon. The real rock stars of the Pyeongchang Olympics are a humble group of Korean curlers who have no idea they’ve become a global sensation.
They are known as the “Garlic Girls,” the South Korean women’s curling team with the fairy-tale story whose moniker reflects the locally-famed garlic grown in their hometown. Never considered a medal contender coming into Pyeongchang, they have risen to No. 1 in the rankings, earning worldwide attention for their fierce talent and funny personalities.
And yet the Garlic Girls have been almost totally sheltered from the international frenzy both by personal choice — they switched off their phones during the games to block outside attention — and by a protective coach who is keenly aware that curling is as much a mental game as a physical one.
After a recent match, the women were quickly shuffled past waiting reporters, giving journalists apologetic smiles and greetings of “Anyonghaseyo!” (hello) before vanishing. None of them, says coach Kim Min-jung, are aware that they’ve become superstars.
“I’m sorry that I could not bring the athletes today, because I’m worried there will be too much pressure and burden on them,” Kim said. “Even the crowd is too interested in them.”
That interest is understandable. The Garlic Girls seem tailor-made for stardom.
The wildly skilled underdogs came into the Olympics ranked eighth in the world and went on to crush curling heavyweights including Canada and Sweden. They are cute and comical, referring to themselves by quirky nicknames such as “Pancake” and “Steak.”
Two teammates are sisters and all are longtime friends, creating irresistible chemistry on the ice. The team’s “skip,” or captain, has a steely gaze and funky, owl-eyed glasses that have become fodder for endless Internet memes.
Many Koreans who have never seen a curling match have nonetheless traveled to remote Gangneung to peek at their nation’s new darlings in person.
“I’m very proud of them,” said Lee Ji Sun, a 26-year-old who had never been inside a curling arena before Wednesday’s match. “They are showing we can do well even in new sport events.”
Every match featuring the team is packed with screaming, flag-fluttering Koreans who leap to their feet to cheer on the women’s stunningly precise shots. One fan in the crowd Wednesday waved what appeared to be a hand-drawn portrait of skip Kim Eun-jung with her trademark spectacles.
The excitement surrounding the women even prompted a few dozen senior citizens from the southern city of Jaecheon to charter a bus to the arena so they could revel in the country’s newfound curling prestige.
“I actually don’t know curling rules, so I have to find out what’s going on from people sitting next to me,” said Yang Chang-nam, 77. “I feel very good as the South Korean team is doing well.”
That curling has gained any prominence in Korea is surprising in itself. Korea didn’t even have a team in Olympic curling until the 2014 Sochi Games.
It took Koreans awhile to wake up to curling, largely because the country lacked sufficient facilities until recent years, Kim Young, a curling legend who started the Korean Curling Club in 1988, said by email. Now, he says, Korea has six dedicated curling arenas, and many schools have curling teams.
In 2006, South Korea’s first curling center was built in the rural town of Uiseong. Four of the five team members attended Uiseong Women’s High School, where they were on the school’s curling team. Uiseong’s reputation as the nation’s default curling capital slowly grew, and the curling center has hosted about 15 major domestic and international curling events.
Still, until the women’s team began their surprise winning streak in Pyeongchang, Uiseong was better known for its prolific garlic production.
Koreans consider garlic a health food that boosts stamina. Seo Eun Ha, a 26-year-old Garlic Girls fan, believes garlic may have contributed to the team’s success. (She also credits the women’s good teamwork and strong relationships.)
Like many fans at Gangneung, Seo is particularly fond of the curlers’ unusual nicknames: Sunny, Steak, Pancake, Annie (a brand of yogurt) and ChoCho (a type of cookie).
“I think their nicknames go well with their lively images,” Seo said. “I like ‘Steak’ the most. It sounds so funny and unique.”
The nicknames started as a gag over breakfast one day, said Kim, the coach. The women were talking about how difficult it was for other countries’ athletes to pronounce their names at international competitions. All five team members and their coach also share the same surname — Kim, which is very common in Korea — making their names even more confounding for foreigners.
Kim Seon-yeong, who was eating a sunny-side-up fried egg, joked that she could go by the name “Sunny.” The other women loved the idea. They each opted to nickname themselves after the English words for their favorite breakfast foods, figuring that would be easier for others to grasp.
Though the women’s team is getting the most attention, Korean fans have been going wild for the men, too. After Wednesday’s men’s match, a player from the Korean team began throwing T-shirts into the crowd, which surged forward with outstretched arms.
Kim Heae Darm, a fan who leaped up and managed to snag a shirt sailing overhead, pressed it to her face and screamed with glee. She then turned to capturing the attention of Korean mixed doubles player Lee Ki-jeong, who scrawled his autograph in her notebook.
As she struggled to catch her breath, she explained her excitement by noting that Lee was strong, athletic and “very handsome.”
“I like them so much!” she squealed.
Kim believes the exposure the sport has received in Pyeongchang will lead to an influx of new curlers in the country, particularly because parents will support children taking it up.
As for the success of the women’s team, Kim, the founder of the curling club, couldn’t be prouder. “They are heroes!” he said.
Yet the Garlic Girls do have one request: Maybe someone could come up with a nicer team name for them?
“We would prefer the name ‘Team Kim,’” Kim, the coach, said with a laugh. “Because although our hometown is Uiseong — which is related to garlic — we have no relationship with garlic at all.”


‘Part of the family’: Worried Saudi falcon owners find relief at special Abu Dhabi bird hospital

Prized female Saker falcons in flight. (Getty Images)
Updated 22 min 5 sec ago
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‘Part of the family’: Worried Saudi falcon owners find relief at special Abu Dhabi bird hospital

  • The price of a falcon depends on its breed and gender, as females are more prized because they are bigger and better for hunting
  • There are falcons that are considered to be very special and beautiful

DUBAI: As the national bird of Saudi Arabia, the falcon is both a symbolic marker of the country’s culture and tradition and a treasured pet to many of its residents — and it is the job of one Abu Dhabi avian expert to tender to hundreds of injured birds of prey flown in from the Kingdom each year.
On any given week, about 10 injured birds are transported from Saudi Arabia — many by private plane — to be treated by the expert hands of Dr. Margit Muller, executive director of Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the world’s first hospital dedicated to the falcon.
An expert in the specialized field of avian medicine, Dr. Muller’s extensive knowledge means she is in constant demand to treat injured falcons from all over the world. She treats about 10,000 birds of prey annually, of which at least 500 — predominately the Saker falcon, the largest species of falcon — are from Saudi Arabia.
“Due to our international reputation as the largest falcon hospital in the world, our very advanced treatment methods and the latest technical equipment, every year we receive more and more falcons from Saudi Arabia for examination and treatment,” said the German-born avian expert.
“Most of the falcons that we received from Saudi Arabia are Saker falcons as they are the favorite hunting falcons in Saudi Arabia. Most travel by car or private plane. For a sick falcon, it is faster to come to us by plane than by car, which reduces delays until the treatment.”
Many Saudi Arabian owners are often distressed as they consider the falcon an integral “part of the family,” explained Dr. Muller.
“The vast majority of falcon owners consider and treat their birds like their own sons and daughters,” she said. “Their falcons occupy a special place in their homes — and even in their cars.”
“Therefore, the falcon owners are very much emotionally attached to their birds, as they really love them very much. Here at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital we often experience very distressed owners whose falcon has come in with an accident. They wait in our reception area until the emergency surgery is finished, even during night hours, just to see their falcon waking up again.
Only then they are relieved enough to go home again. ”Moreover, falconers bring their birds to Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital even when they notice the slightest problem — like sneezing or vomiting — because they are extremely concerned and worried about their beloved falcons.”
They are also a valuable asset. Dr. Muller estimates that the average value of a falcon can range anywhere from SR20,000 ($5,300) to SR50,000.
“The price of a falcon depends on its breed and gender, as females are more prized because they are bigger and better for hunting, as well as being more beautiful,” she explained. “Moreover, in captive-bred falcons, the breeder’s reputation also plays a role in the price of the falcon.
“However, there are falcons that are considered to be very special and beautiful. They may cost more than SR100,000.”
Dr. Muller, who fell in love with falcons when she was training to be a vet and took a two-month internship in Dubai before obtaining a doctorate in veterinary medicine, said there is now about a 20 per cent increase year-on-year in the number of birds passing through Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
Every day she will treat dozens of feathered patients with differing injuries or illness.
“In Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, we have treated many different kinds of injures,” she said. “Some of the cases that are being treated are falcons that have encountered major accidents, such as being hit by a car, have leg fractures, or are suffering from a bacterial and viral infection or a bleeding nose. They may be showing symptoms of being very weak, tired and emaciated, or are suffering from Aspergillosis (a fungal disease that affects the lung and leads to major breathing difficulties and loss of flight performance, and is potentially fatal).”
Dr. Muller said that her first step when interacting with a new patient is to examine the falcon to establish the correct diagnosis and treatment plan.
“Care and medical rehabilitation for falcons will depend on the bird’s medical condition, and ranges from normal hospitalization in our hospital wards, up to stays in our ICU for critically ill falcons,” she explained.
“They require 24-hour special care as well as specifically designed treatment protocols and special feeding programs.”
“In the case of bacterial upper respiratory tract infections, the falcon should be under medical care for one week. However, an injured falcon requiring surgical repair for a broken leg or wing should be under medical care for a month.”
Falcons who moult — the cyclic replacement of feathers by shedding old ones, while producing new ones in their place — usually stay for a minimum of six months.
“Here at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, we have a very scientific moulting facility and it is really a big hit for falcons during moulting season,” she said. “Therefore, every year we receive more and more falcons from Saudi Arabia as their owners would like their falcons to stay in a professional and caring place during the moulting time.”
Dr. Muller, who concentrated her thesis on foot disease in falcons and also has a diploma in veterinary homeopathy, became director of the ADFH in 2001.
“I always found falcons highly interesting and fascinating,” she said, with a smile. “When I came into contact with falcons during my veterinary medicine studies, I was so immediately attracted to them. The look in falcons’ eyes is like magic.”
After deciding to be a falcon specialist, Dr. Muller went on to share her experience with other veterinarians and falcon rehabilitation experts throughout the world by publishing her book “Practical Handbook of Falcon Husbandry and Medicine.”
Every day is a new challenge, she explains, but her work — which has earned international recognition — is something she says she is thankful for every day.
“There are always special cases of falcons, especially those which are very hard to treat, such as major accidents and fractures. The harder the case and the more the falcons suffer from an injury or disease, the more likely I get attached to them.
“It is beyond words to describe how much the falcons fight for their survival and how much they communicate their need of help through their eyes.
“The moment I look into their big black eyes, I am immediately attached to them and try my very best to help them as much as I can to save their life.
“It is what I feel I am here for.”