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Curling has steadily acquired a surprising hipster cachet over the years, writes Rachel Steinberg.
It’s hard to say when the great Scottish game of stones and sweeping caught the attention of the jet set, but by 2019 it was possible to hold a broom in one hand and a cocktail in another at a rink perched atop a trendy bar in London’s South Bank.
And if you spotted John Shuster and his tattooed, man-bunned and moustachioed American teammates strolling around Manchester’s Northern Quarter, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were soon off to see an up-and-coming indie band, not defend Olympic gold.
The sport now even boasts a dedicated celebration, Curling is Cool Day, observed every February 23rd.
Most of this hasn’t registered on Eve Muirhead’s radar, but the Scottish skipper, who is kicking off her Women’s World Championship campaign on Friday, was perfectly pleased to hear something more than a 45-metre sheet of ice was bringing the cool factor to her sport.
The Olympic bronze medallist said: “I’ve not actually really noticed that, to be fair, I didn’t really know that.
“I think people have this kind of dark image of old men smoking fags, drinking whisky and curling on a loch, don’t they, when it comes to curling in Scotland.
“So anything to get that image of curling a little bit more modern and a little but more fun, I think that’s good.”
Muirhead and teammates Vicky Wright, Jennifer Dodds and Lauren Gray flew to Calgary three and a half weeks ago, where they started their international season against the globe’s top teams in two Grand Slams.
The Canadian city has served as a curling hub for six straight major events, including the men’s worlds earlier this month.
Scottish skip Bruce Mouat walked away with a silver medal - and an Olympic qualification place - for his efforts, before winning two Grand Slams in the same arena.
If anything, said Muirhead, her countryman’s success will only serve as motivation when she throws her first stone on Friday against the United States.
She said: “I don’t think we’ve got added pressure, but you always want to match them, don’t you? You don’t want to let the females down.
“But we’ve had a lot of good chats with the boys, and they’ve passed on a lot of their challenges and their positive side of it here in the bubble.
“It will be nice to match the boys.”
Like most pandemic-era competitions, Calgary’s have taken place inside a bubble, complete with Covid-19 testing and social distancing policies.
Earlier this week, two arriving German athletes received positive results, putting the tournament’s start in jeopardy and leading to the cancellation of practices.
But on Wednesday, World Curling announced all but the German team were given the go-ahead to resume on-ice activity.
Muirhead turned 31 in the bubble. She spent her last birthday at in isolation in lockdown, and, despite the best efforts of her teammates, this one wasn’t much more festive.
She said: “It was the second birthday in a row that was really boring.
“I did nothing—get up, eat breakfast, play a game, eat lunch, play a game, and go to bed.
“I can just pretend I’m 29 and then we’ll have the 30th next year.”
If all goes to plan, the Perth native will have added another medal to her collection before she finally blows out those birthday candles.
Muirhead became the youngest skip to win a Winter Olympic medal in 2014, when, at 19, she led her team to bronze in Sochi.
A top six finish at the worlds will qualify a Team GB rink for February’s Beijing Games. Muirhead is trying not to think about it, but, without much else to do in the bubble, it hasn’t been easy—especially with the qualification calendar truncated by Covid-19.
“I’d be lying if I said it’s not something that you think about,” she admitted.
“It all comes down to this year. It’s something that’s always on your mind.”
No casual cocktails for this Olympian, then. It’s time to get down to business.