The Olympic Games are often defined by the feats achieved by the all-time greats. Whether it’s Jesse Owens in Berlin, Muhammed Ali in Rome, Mark Spitz in Munich, Mia Hamm in Athens, or Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt in Beijing — we remember each successive Games by the crowning achievements of history’s best.
However, we also love the Olympic games for their underdogs.
Perhaps more than any other, Great Britain’s 2002 women’s curling team epitomized the underdog. Their thrilling journey to gold at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City may have been unexpected, but it will never be forgotten.
Rhona Martin assembled her team of Debbie Knox, Fiona MacDonald, Janice Rankin, and Margaret Morton well before 2002. The team, made up of Scots, competed together for a number of years and were always decent but never top tier.
Martin and her team represented Scotland at the European Championships in the years leading up to the 2002 Olympics. Notably, the team finally won the Scottish Championships in 2000, going on to place fourth in the World Championships and beating Canadian Kelley Law’s Dream Team along the way.
The achievement, while impressive, did little to bolster the image of Martin’s team, especially after Law and Team Canada took revenge later in the playoff rounds.
Fresh off the loss, Martin’s team of Scots still hoped their fourth-place finish would grant them a spot at the 2002 Winter Olympics as the face of Great Britain. However, due to roster adjustments during the Olympic cycle, another team could win the honor of an Olympic bid.
The competing team, skipped by Julia Ewart, failed to make the podium at the 2001 World Curling Championships. After Ewart’s loss, Martin’s team received the nod to represent Britain at the Olympics.
As is customary, teams selected for the Winter Olympics generally participate in the European Curling Championships as a trial run for the Olympics later on that winter. Martin’s team, representing Scotland in the Championships in Finland, finished sixth.
Between barely clinching the Olympic berth and a poor finish in the European Championships, Martin’s team was hardly expected to achieve a winning record at the 2002 Olympics, let alone win a medal.
To make matters worse, shortly after arriving in Salt Lake City, Martin developed a stomach illness for which she needed to be hospitalized. The team had doubted their skip would be able to participate in the momentous occasion.
Martin recovered shortly before play commenced though, with all of the adversity, expectations remained low for the British curlers.
The 2002 Winter Olympics structure
The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics curling competition consisted of two stages: the round-robin stage (also referred to as the group or pool stage) and the playoffs. During round-robin play, each of the 10 teams competed in 10 of 12 draws. By the completion of the stage, each team had played all other teams once.
In order for Team Great Britain (GB) to make it to the playoffs, they needed to best almost all of the top competitors in the sport, including Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, and the United States.
Great Britain’s team of Scots kicked off the 2002 Winter Games in the first draw against Norway. Martin’s team held skip Dordi Nordby and her team to six points while shooting four multi-scoring ends, with a final score of 10-6.
Draw number two consisted of a decisive game between Great Britain and Sweden, where the Swedes piled on in the last two ends to win 7-4. Both teams shot accurately, though the Scots shot well above 72 as a team to the Swedes almost-perfect 79 and above.
In the third draw, Team GB destroyed Japan with a final of 9-1 decided early in the seventh end. The entire team shot above 80, but Fiona MacDonald owned the match with an astounding 96.
Team GB then rested for draw number four and came back in draw five with an 8-5 win over Russia.
At almost halfway through the group stage, only the favorites — Law’s Canadian curling club and the Swiss team — remained undefeated. Behind them sat Martin’s team at 3-1 as well as the Germans. Below Team GB and Germany rested the Americans and Danes at 2-2, followed by Norway and Sweden at 1-3 and Russia and Japan at 0-4.
At this stage, Team GB’s success seemed like a surprise, especially given the circumstances leading up to the Olympics. The positions of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway were also surprising given Sweden’s recent win at the European Curling Championships.
Most importantly, Martin’s team seemed consistent. Each player shot around or above 70 (out of 80) each match with only overperforming outliers, such as MacDonald’s 96. The only instance in which the team shot below 70 was in the first game, but no player ever shot below 60 — a fact that most teams in the competition could not claim.
Moving into the second half of round-robin play, Team GB needed to keep the momentum and stay with the leaders. In its current position, the team would secure a playoff spot — the challenge was to stay there.
Team GB faced a real test in the sixth draw, which set them up for a battle with the undefeated Canadians. Skip Law and second Georgina Wheatcroft shot incredible 89s to put the Scots to bed.
Lead Rankin carried the team to four points with 91 shooting, while the remaining teammates floundered, especially Martin with a 52. The British team folded after a two-point Canadian score in the eighth end, ending the match with a 9-4 final.
Draw number seven provided a chance at redemption for the British team. They immediately faced off against the other unbeaten squad: the Swiss. Martin’s team held off Switzerland in the 10th end with a score of 7-4. Again, Rankin carried the team with a near-perfect 80. Martin and Knox bounced back into the 70s while MacDonald struggled with a 63.
In draw eight, team GB took advantage of a poor Danish performance, averaging over 81 to the Dane’s 68, winning 8-6.
During the next draw, Canada lengthened its unbeaten streak to eight with a win over Denmark, and Sweden gave Switzerland its second loss in extra ends after throwing consistently. Canada had effectively eliminated Denmark from the playoffs, while Sweden’s win helped keep its tournament hopes alive.
Moving into the 10th draw with a bye, Team Canada had already secured its spot in the four-team playoffs. Great Britain and Switzerland also seemed likely to receive bids at 5-2, though Germany and the United States loomed close behind at 4-3 with three spots up for grabs.
It turns out they loomed a bit too close.
The match between Team GB and Team USA shook up the playoff projections. With a 6-5 win in extra ends, the Americans now tied the British curlers in record and in head-to-head. In this match, alternate Morton replaced Rankin as lead, but only shot a 50 before Rankin regained her spot in the lineup.
The 11th draw turned out to be a similar fate for the British, as its 5-2 advantage after the ninth draw all but evaporated. Team GB lost a crucial match 7-5 to the other main team vying for a playoff spot: the Germans.
Norway also lost to the United States, while the Swiss handed Canada its first loss despite a strong finish.
Moving into the final draw, the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, and Norway had already completed their matches. Canada and the United States had already secured bids, though the Americans’ positioning had not yet been solidified.
Because Switzerland and Germany were to play the 12th draw against one another, Switzerland and the U.S. were guaranteed a spot in. Germany would clinch a spot with a win but would move to a tiebreaker with a loss. Sweden needed a win and a Germany loss to get a spot in the tiebreaker, while Great Britain needed a Germany loss to stay alive.
Sure enough, Switzerland handily beat the Germans 10-4 after scoring four points in the ninth end and Germany conceding. Sweden also won 9-6 against Russia, making themselves eligible for the tiebreaker.
Canada, the United States, and Switzerland were in. Who would join them?
The Germans, British, and Swedes all had the potential to win that last spot — but they would need a tiebreaker to determine who would get there.
Both Sweden and Britain lost to Team Germany, but Britain also lost to Sweden in the group stage. Instead of using the head-to-head as a tiebreaker, the three teams needed to compete to determine the team facing Canada as the low seed.
Thus, the teams that lost to Germany would play first in a rematch from the second draw: Sweden vs. Great Britain.
The first end scored no points. Sweden’s Elisabet Gustafson, the reigning bronze-medal skip, led her team to score one point in the second end. Martin and Team GB tallied an equalizer in the third, then adding two more in the fourth and one more in the fifth.
With a 4-1 lead, Martin parked the bus, enacting a defensive strategy to maintain the lead.
Her strategy paid off, only conceding three points while adding two more. Great Britain secured a win, 6-4, moving on to face Germany in the second tiebreaker.
This wasn’t the same German lineup that Great Britain faced in the European Curling Championship. With the third now the skip and two replacement curlers, this new German squad skipped by Natalie Nessler was a markedly different team than the one that beat Team Switzerland in group play and narrowly lost to it again in the bronze match.
Additionally, this German team had a chip on its shoulder after big losses to Norway, Canada and Switzerland. As one of the medal favorites, they desired the opportunity to prove themselves.
Unfortunately for Germany, a strong start could not hold off Team GB. After leading 3-1 at the conclusion of the fourth end, Martin and team gathered momentum.
Behind Rankin’s excellent throwing, the team picked up five more points over the next three ends, taking the lead that they would never relinquish. Despite a two-point eighth end, the British women’s curling team could not be stopped, putting up a three-point ninth end to force the Germans into concession.
And just like that, Team GB earned a place in the semi-finals to face the goliath: Canada.
Canada’s legacy of curlers did not start with Law.
In the 1990s, Sanda Schmirler dominated the sport. She and her team set a record for the most World Championships won by the same team with wins in 1993, 1994, and 1997. Only Sweden’s Gustafson, who Team GB beat in the first tiebreaker, would beat that record with four.
Schmirler also led Canada to the first Olympic gold medal for women’s curling in the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. Tragically, at only 36 years of age, Schmirler passed away from cancer. To say that Law had big shoes to fill is an understatement.
Law’s team competed against Colleen Jones’s team for opportunities to represent Canada. Each team took a world champion title after Schmirler’s passing, though it was Law and her 2000 World Championship team that would receive the honors to represent Canada at the 2002 Olympics.
They surely did not disappoint. Aside from a one-point loss to Switzerland in their last draw, Canada did not drop a game. Set to curl against the British team, one that they had beaten 10-6 in the semi-finals for the 2000 World Curling Championship and earlier in the Olympic group stage 9-4, Canada felt that the gold-medal match was within reach.
But Team GB put up a fight.
The match started off slow, with Canada getting on the board first with one point in the first end. Neither team scored in the second, and then Great Britain tied it up.
The British curlers jumped ahead with two points in the fourth end, which the Canadians equaled over the fifth and sixth ends.
Great Britain once again scored two points, this time in the seventh, which the Canadians took two ends to match. Thus, Great Britain and Canada tied entering the tenth end.
In curling, the biggest advantage a team can acquire is the hammer. The hammer is the last stone thrown in an end. The team in possession alternates, giving the team most recently scored on an advantage. In this case, as Canada most recently scored, Great Britain held the hammer for the final end.
Despite being the overwhelming underdogs, Team GB pulled off a massive upset against gold-medal favorite and curling titan Canada. The team that was unsure of its Olympic status just months before would be moving on to face the Swiss in the gold-medal match.
Not long after Canada claimed the bronze over the Americans, Switzerland and Great Britain faced off once again in Salt Lake City.
After the win against Canada, expectations for the gold-medal finale held little to no weight. The British curling squad still held the title of underdog, yet the team had hope.
Following along back in Scotland, millions of people stayed up to watch the possibility of the first gold medal for Scots since 1936 and the first British gold medal since Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean’s record-breaking ice dancing performance in 1984.
Team GB started the final with the hammer, though they were unable to make use of it. Great Britain and Switzerland kept an even and scoreless match for the entirety of the first three ends.
In the fourth end, the Swiss jumped onto the board with a one-point lead. The British, in response, catapulted into first with a double.
After another scoreless end in the sixth, a Swiss error allowed the Scots another point, bringing the score to 3-1 at the end of the seventh.
Looking to remedy the mistake, the Swiss bounced back, scoring one in the eighth and one in the ninth. Switzerland had gained momentum entering into the tenth and final end.
Like the semi-final, in allowing the Swiss curlers to score in the ninth, Team GB held the hammer in the tenth.
With a Swiss stone in the house and closest to the button, Martin held the hammer. If she did not knock the Swiss stone out of play, the Swiss would score and win the gold medal.
With not an ounce of panic on her face, Martin pushed the final stone. As Rankin and MacDonald brushed to Martin’s directions, the control throw slowly crept across the ice.
Like a scene out of a movie, Martin’s draw bounced the Swiss stone out of the house and drifted into the button. Before it came to rest, MacDonald jumped into the air and hugged Rankin before running over to Martin.
Team GB had done it. The British curlers won the first Olympic gold medal in curling for Great Britain since the inaugural Chamonix Winter Games in 1924. And the Scots had brought back a gold medal to the place from which curling originated.
Now dubbed “the stone of destiny,” Martin’s final throw will forever live as one of the greatest moments in the history of women’s curling.
Though an Olympic gold medal can be life-changing for athletes like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, or Simone Biles, gold medals in the sport of curling do little to secure multi-million dollar endorsement deals or recognition.
After British Parliament and Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the team as heroes, they went on to participate in talk shows, attend Wimbledon and receive honors as Members of the Most Excellent Order the British Empire (MBE).
But after that, the team returned to their normal lives.
Martin curled for a number of years afterward before turning to coaching.
Rankin went home to raise her children.
Knox returned to her job at Standard Life, and MacDonald worked as business manager at a car dealership.
Despite the lack of notoriety, the team left a legacy of something much more valuable than a gold medal: hope.
In the years after their win, Scotland rose in the curling ranks, and new curlers have made mentors out of the retired medalists. Eve Muirhead is one such curler who has made a name for herself in following the footsteps of Martin, her mentor and junior national team coach.
Muirhead aspires to be as successful as her former coach. But she chalks up that aspiration to the groundwork Martin and her team laid for the future of curling in Scotland.
From being completely off the map to taking down a curling giant to winning a gold medal a game later, the 2002 British Olympic women’s curling team proved that with a little bit of hope, the results can be surprising. With the hope provided by Team Great Britain in 2002, the future of curling looks bright.
- Scotland’s Curling Crisis
- European Curling Championships 2001
- Olympic Winter Games 2002
- Ford World Curling Championships 2000
- Martin Skips Curlers To Gold In Salt Lake