Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018

New-look Team Eve Muirhead motivated ‘to be the best in the world’

The biggest name in British curling for nearly a decade has been Eve Muirhead and from the off she has been receiving media attention.

At 19, she was dubbed as the future of curling, when she made her Olympic debut in Vancouver. As the skip of that team, Muirhead was a similar age to another Scottish curling hero, Jackie Lockhart, who made her international debut at the European championships at just 18 in 1983.

A decade on and the hype hasn’t been unwarranted. Since then, Muirhead has won the world championship, scored a medal haul of eight European championship medals and holds an Olympic bronze medal from 2014. The latter made her the youngest skip to win an Olympic medal at 23 years old.

Team Muirhead after winning bronze at the Olympic Winter Games 2014 in Sochi, Russia © WCF / Richard Gray

It now feels like a lifetime since Vancouver and Muirhead still isn’t in her 30s. Her inspiration, Rhona Martin, won Olympic gold in 2002 at 35 years old and didn’t make her international debut until she was 31. The years are still aplenty for Muirhead, but you don’t rack up ten years in elite sport without some lows.

Like any athlete, curlers are suspect to injury. After playing for a while in pain, Muirhead decided to undergo hip surgery. As you might expect with a long road to recovery, 2018 was the rink’s most difficult year to date with the skip not at 100 per cent. Playing through the pain at the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang nearly ended in another bronze medal but Japan edged it in a close match.

With the continuous pain and eventual surgery, 2018 became the first year since 2009 where Muirhead would not win a senior international medal and the first year since 2006 – when she was just 16 – that she hadn’t won a medal, including junior events.

“Last year was a funny season for us,” said Muirhead on her return home after a tour of Canada. “I wasn’t 100 per cent fit which didn’t help and also we had a new combination of players. We didn’t really find our feet as quickly as we wanted to.

Eve at Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2018 © WCF / Stephen Fisher

“For myself, I didn’t have a great season. Last year and of course the seasons before, I had been playing with a lot of pain in my hip and it’s difficult to mentally prepare for this but really all I can do is be in the best physical shape that I can.

“Playing now with a fraction of the pain that I had before has made things a lot easier. I’ve built a lot of confidence on my hip over the summer working with physios. That’s made a big difference.”

But, 2019 has already shown glimpses of a strong return for one of the most decorated skips on the tour. At the end of the 2018-2019 season, her rink won their final event of the year at the Arctic Cup in Russia – a fitting farewell to Eve’s closest ally, Vicki Chalmers, who departed the team.

“Winning the Arctic Cup was a massive confidence booster. It brought a lot of good vibes for the team and it put us in a good state going forward into the start of this season.

“Even gathering just a few more points to slowly bring us up the order of merit has helped as well.”

With the momentum of her final tournament last season taking them through well into the 2019-2020 season, it seemed to rub off the team positively in their first tournament. At the Cameron’s Brewing Oakville Fall Classic, in Canada, after losing their first group game, the new rink of Muirhead, Lauren Gray, Jennifer Dodds and new permanent member, Vicky Wright went undefeated, beating world champions, Switzerland’s Silvana Tirinzoni in the final.

“To kick off the season in Oakville with a win was fantastic. Even in the first three weeks we’ve been really good.

“Overall as a new team and for me coming into this season after surgery, I’m feeling a lot better. Hopefully we can build on that going into the next competitions.

“This season we’ve spent a lot of work trying to iron out any issues. We’ve had a great pre-season and I think we’re a lot more comfortable in our positions this year.”

As well as injury, Muirhead has also had to navigate a series of team changes.

Months after Team Muirhead left PyeongChang, long-time third, Anna Sloan announced she would be taking a step back from playing. Sloan made the decision to take a break from the sport having been with the team since 2011. She joined Eve at the same time as Vicki Chalmers in what would become one of the most successful sides in curling over the past decade. Two of those three are no longer competing, with Chalmers’ exit this summer, leaving Lauren Gray as the only other member of the team who has been there for more than a year.

Anna Sloan and Vicki Chalmers at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 © WCF / Richard Gray

‘Sometimes you can learn all you can from certain people and there’s times when you need to make a change’ 

“I’ve had a lot of changes within my team over the years and I do think that’s important.

“I think there has been to be some fresh faces and fresh ideas. Sometimes you can learn all you can from certain people and there’s times when you need to make a change.

“Over the years curling has become more full-time, so for many people that’s a very hard commitment and of course people want to have families and get married and maybe put their sport on the back seat.

Sometimes that’s what pushes change and for me it’s all about having a team that are very motivated in the same areas. We’re all motivated to be the best in the world.”

That being said, Dodds and Wright have played under Gray’s rink in the past and both were respectively the lead and the alternate on Team Muirhead last season. There’s some familiarity there but also a lot to learn ahead of a crucial season for the quartet.

“With Vicki retiring from the team, we’ve got a new lot of players but it’s important that we turn on the change in players as quickly as we can and that we make every player in the team as comfortable as possible.

“As a team we started doing that very well so far this season and I think the new line up is gelling really well. We’re all exceptional curlers. We can play some great curling and we need to be consistent with that and bring that to the top level.”

From left to right: Vicky Wright, Eve Muirhead, Vicki Chalmers, Lauren Gray and Jennifer Dodds at the Le Gruyère AOP European Curling Championships 2018 © WCF / Alina Pavlyuchik

Although new partnerships always bring their own challenges, when an athlete is not performing at their best, there’s a question of how that has affected them mentally. In Muirhead’s position, it’s not difficult to imagine what it takes to come back from those difficulties over the past couple of years.

In her time recovering and in between difficult tournaments, Muirhead has been keeping herself busy as a columnist for her regional newspaper, The Courier. She’s also been continuing to indulge in her second love – golf. In the past she has spoken about the importance of having other sports to keep you interested and has used her rehab time effectively.

“I play a lot of golf as well. I love playing it in the summer and have managed a little bit over the past couple of months.

“I think it’s really important that you do manage to play some sport away from curling. It can take your mind off it at times and keeps you motivated to go back to curling if you’ve had a break from it and have totally switched off from it.”

And so far, so good. Muirhead is effectively a veteran at this stage thanks to her early success in the sport. It feels fitting to compare her to the great Jackie Lockhart considering they briefly teamed up at the end of Lockhart’s near-30-year senior career in Vancouver in 2010. Lockhart came into curling also in her teens, won plenty of medals – including gold at the World Women’s Curling Championship and silver at the European Curling Championships – during her tenure and played well into her 40s.

With Muirhead the Lockhart of her generation, the question is how long will she continue at the top? Despite being the most famous Scottish curler around today, she’s modest at the idea of having inspired a generation of Scots to participate and watch the sport. There seems to be no sign of quitting any time soon with her focus being to continue making curling a talking point in the Scottish media.

“I don’t really see myself as a role model for Scottish curling but people say I am and I love that. I think it’s really important for me to keep people motivated to get into the sport.

“I think for myself the way I can push curling within Scotland is hopefully to keep doing well and win medals.

“Doing that keeps curling in the limelight and in the media. That then gets public interest. It’s great to be part of the sport and I absolutely love curling but to be viewed as a role model as such within it is something pretty special to me.

“I just hope I can continue that. When I retire from curling hopefully I can do something to keep the sport alive here.”

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Perth, Scotland

27 September 2019