Winter Olympics 2014: Eve Muirhead out to win curling gold for GB

Great Britain's women skip is heading for Sochi fired by the example of Jesica Ennis at London 2012

You get the impression Eve Muirhead, world champion curler and part-time piper, does not suffer fools gladly. While she will happily, and enthusiastically, talk up her sport and her bold ambitions, her steely blue eyes are liable to fall on anyone who asks a daft question.

Ask her to run through the roles of her team-mates and she looks less than impressed. Ask her what makes a good curler and she will tell you, with a mildly exasperated air: "I have no idea."

No wonder Rhona Howie, who most will recall as the skip of the 2002 team (when she was called Rhona Martin)that kept more than six million viewers gripped beyond midnight in winning curling gold, Britain's solitary Olympic title in Salt Lake City, describes her as perfect leadership material. "She's focused, she's determined, she always wants to be better and wants to improve. She calls a really good game. She's definitely what we're looking for in skip material," says Howie, now the head coach of the women's curling team, who has worked closely with them for the past three years.

Muirhead, about to head to her second Winter Olympics as skip of the British women's curling rink despite being only 23, lights up when she talks about leading her young team to Sochi. Of the quartet – the rink (or team) is completed by Vicki Adams, Claire Hamilton and Anna Sloan – only Muirhead has been to an Olympics.

"It's huge that we get on. We are with each other all the time. We eat together, we share rooms with each other, we travel with each other," says Muirhead. "We know each other inside out, know how people deal with different things, which is really good, and it is great that we are such great friends as well."

Having just returned from a tournament in Las Vegas, where Muirhead piped them on to the ice in front of thousands before they beat all of their most likely challengers in Sochi, she believes they are well set. The dramatic finale to their world championship victory in Riga last year, when they defeated Sweden 6-5 with Muirhead sealing the dramatic last-stone victory, had echoes of Howie's Salt Lake City triumph.

If there is a repeat in Sochi, Muirhead is convinced she will not be fazed. At its most competitive, curling is as much an exercise in handling mental pressure as anything else. "I love playing under pressure. That is the part of the game I love doing well at. So many people have asked what were you thinking before that stone – I have no real idea, it was just like another shot to me. I guess that is why we practise four hours every day – for that one key shot," she says.

Ask Howie to recall once more her gold medal-winning "stone of destiny" in Salt Lake City and you get a remarkably similar answer. "I don't remember the crowd or what people were shouting. I don't remember any of that because I was really focused," she says. She remained unaware of the huge story she had become until their return to Scotland, whereupon she opened a mountain of mail. "One woman jumped out of bed and landed on the cat and killed it. Stories like that. You read it thinking: 'Oh wow.' I had loads of them," says Howie.

For all the pre-Sochi hoopla, Muirhead, who turned her back on a potential career as a professional golfer to dedicate herself to curling, was at a low ebb in 2012 when the sport had its funding cut by 50% after "only" claiming silver at that year's European Championship.

It was watching Jessica Ennis compete in London and seeing the "face of the Games" deal with pressure with such aplomb that redoubled her resolve to carry on with the early starts and gruelling gym sessions that curling now requires. "It was the bit of a boost I needed. When I went there and watched all these athletes and saw the amount of work they put in it really did open my eyes. So I went back and I really busted a gut – after seeing that, you want to do what these guys are doing," she says.

"You want to win medals. The Olympic medal is the one medal I am missing right now. London was definitely a huge inspiration for me and to watch Jessica in that stadium – the pressure she was under was unbelievable."

In Scotland, where they have had little to shout about in international football for some time, the comparison is not too far wide of the mark. When Muirhead's team won the World Championship, she featured on the front page of eight out of 10 national newspapers. Expect Alex Salmond to take an interest should they make the podium in Sochi.

A "gutted" Muirhead collapsed in tears when her team fell short in Vancouver four years ago but believes she is much better equipped to deal with the demands of the Games this time. "You train hard for a lot of years leading up to that and when your dreams are crushed in the Olympic Games it is tough. But you know what? It is a lesson learned. I learned a lot. I went back and thought about a lot. I changed a lot," she says. "We know how to win major tournaments. We're looking forward to it."


Owen Gibson

The GuardianTramp

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