What Peter Gallant really wanted was a hug. Well, five hugs.
Sure, the respected curling coach and father to Team Brad Gushue’s Brett Gallant wants many things, including another shot at the Olympics. But hugs from a team that once was his, and is now his again, was the more immediate desire.
Counting down to his time in the curling bubble was difficult—he had to wait for those hugs from Korea’s Team Eun-jung Kim, hoping the protocols would allow for them at some point soon. You know why that is. We all, painfully, know why that is.
After having their curling relationship severed three years ago, and after having gone through so much together before being separated by maddening circumstances, Canada’s Gallant and the Korean team once (and perhaps still) known as the “Garlic Girls” are now reunited at the 2021 World Women’s Curling Championship in Calgary.
“They’re like my five daughters that I never had,” says Gallant. “They’re amazing, amazing girls.”
The hugs finally happened just the other day, at the Calgary airport. The team disembarked, claimed their luggage—and there he was, the coach, masked up and waiting for them at the end of a long corridor.
He got his hugs, and the moment was captured on the team’s Instagram account.
“Yeah,” Gallant says, warmly. “I was pretty excited to see them.
“It felt a bit like meeting old friends you haven’t seen in a long time. Or a close relative that you’ve missed. It was a happy feeling.”
The bond between Gallant and the Koreans–skip Kim Eun-jung, third Kim Kyeong-ae, second Kim Chohi, lead Kim Seon-yeong and alternate Kim Yeong-mi—is a strong one, forged through their silver medal success at the 2018 Olympics. But it is also one that was girded through shared experiences at the hands of a disgraced former management trio, whose abuses and criminality shocked the country and rocked Korea’s curling community to the core.
The Curling News has led the way in bringing the sordid tale to English-language sport media. Numerous stories can be found on this site, including the most recent which revealed the prison sentences assigned to the guilty.
Another provides details about the extent of the emotional abuse, the legacy of such behaviors in South Korea and the Korean curling community’s lifetime ban on the offenders.
Fundamentally, this reunion of team and coach happened late last summer, albeit from a great distance. Gallant and Team Kim had, he says, an agreement for him to rejoin them if they’d managed to earn a spot at the 2021 worlds. They did that, with a victory at the Korean national curling championship, last November.
“There was the hope that I’d be able to get over there at some point and work with them,” explains Gallant. “But that wasn’t gonna happen because of COVID.”
The continuing pandemic has so far made a trip to South Korea impossible, so Gallant has been coaching and socializing from much farther away than the suggested six feet. There’ve been text messages, and Gallant also kept up with the team through their Instagram account postings.
“I’ve been in touch with their regular coach there,” he adds. “The odd time I’d give them some ideas of what they should be focused on, just to be sure they’re not missing things.”
Gallant’s history with Team Kim goes back to 2016 when he was first hired in an attempt to get the squad to loftier heights. That box got checked as the team scored victories at back-to-back Pacific-Asia championships in 2016 and ’17.
The squad was ramped up for a home country Olympic Winter Games appearance in 2018, at Pyeongchang (actually Gangneung, site of the 2009 women’s worlds).
“They weren’t winning a ton of events,” remembers Gallant of the run-up to the Olympics, “but they were beating the top teams.”
Finally stringing together a clutch of victories at a single event, Team Kim became the darlings of a nation as they piled up eight wins in the round-robin, finishing at the top of the table. They then won a scintillating semifinal against Japan.
“When Annie (Eun-jung) drew to the button in the extra end to beat (Satsuki) Fujisawa, it was one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had in curling,” says Gallant.
The team then lost to Sweden’s Anna Hasselborg in the final, but no matter. The silver medal provided Korean curling with what currently stands as its greatest-ever international achievement.
The reaction in Korea was, in a word, staggering. Internet memes and fan artworks sprouted forth, many of them obsessing over the skip’s serious expression—and commitment to eating bananas at the fifth-end break.
Korean electronics giant LG cast the squad in a series of television commercials.
There were media appearances galore. They were the talk of the nation.
The amazing run of Olympic curling victories and the aftermath occurred despite things being in shambles behind the scenes.
The stories of emotional abuse and theft of funds by managers of the team detail the infuriating chain of events through which Team Kim and Gallant needed to plow in order to be successful at the Olympics. That they accomplished what they did, despite the obstacles, is quite remarkable.
Kim Min-jung was the head coach of the team. She, along with her father, Kim Kyung-doo, who was vice president of the Korean Curling Federation and Min-jung’s husband, Jang Ban-seok, who coached the Korean mixed doubles team at the Olympics, have since been banned for life by the Korean Curling Federation. Verbal and emotional abuse were cited, along with financial impropriety. The two men are currently serving prison sentences for embezzlement.
“Bizarre,” says Gallant, thinking back to that time. “That’s the only way I can describe it. It made it all the more amazing that the girls were able to continue to focus.”
“It should be the best experience of your life,” he moans, of the Olympics. “But it wasn’t.”
Complicating matters for the team and for Gallant was a language barrier. None of the women spoke much English, and Gallant not much Korean, a dynamic that remains in place today. The interpreter at the time, he says, was coach Kim Min-jung.
Despite the obvious roadblocks being put up by the now-banished coach, Gallant and the team were able to form a bond and a trust that superseded any obstacle that a language barrier could toss at them. They became close despite all of that.
It’s quite possible that the hardships even played a part in bringing them even closer together. Certainly, Team Kim’s ability to shoulder the pressure of a home soil Olympics while simultaneously battling the abusive dysfunction that victimized them cemented the admiration that Gallant still holds for the five of them.
“As that week went along they just persevered,” says Gallant. It was just amazing.”
In that crucible, the coach and the team learned that they could depend on one another.
“One of the most important things, I feel, in coaching, is level of trust,” explains Gallant, who worked this past season as Performance Director for Curl PEI, proving his energy for instruction remains high by running 73 clinics on the island. “The players need to trust you in more ways than one. I spent a lot of time making sure that they did trust me and let them know that they could.”
Earning that trust turned out to be a happy two-way street for the coach and the team. Gallant says he made certain to be a gracious guest, accepting social invitations extended by the players’ families. “I’ve met all their parents and been to their parents’ houses,” says Gallant of his time in South Korea. The team, in turn, made sure to see that his everyday needs—like food—were not being overlooked due to the coach’s inability to speak the native language.
“They looked after me pretty well and made sure that I wasn’t forgotten,” Gallant says, gratefully.
It would have been nice, of course, for Gallant to continue to be associated with Team Kim after the Olympics, but that was not to be. His contract lapsed when the games were over and he was not offered a renewal. Things spiralled downward for Team Kim, owing to the brutal mismanagement that plagued them. Gallant stayed connected as best he could—“I never lost touch with the group,” he says—and was even invited to Eun-jung’s wedding the following summer.
In the fall of 2018, Gallant moved on to coach Switzerland’s Team Silvana Tirinzoni. Another thing happened that fall and it was significant. The Garlic Girls, so-named because of the prevalence of garlic production in their hometown, decided to go public with the details of the abuse they had suffered, bravely bringing the issues into the light.
From afar, Gallant watched, and was impressed once again.
“They’re a determined crew,” he says, marvelling at team Kim’s journey through so much emotional garbage only to emerge even stronger on the other side of the fight. “I’ve always been extremely proud of them. I’ve always been proud of them and I’ve always supported them.”
“There’s no question they’ve come through a lot,” he continues, “and they still have the desire to play and be champions.”
Team Kim has a new lease on their curling lives, moving from their home province of Uiseong to the province of Gangneung, where they train at the 2018 Games host facility. “That province welcomed them with open arms and they made a big deal out of Gangneung City now being the home of Team Kim,” says Gallant, adding that it was “best for the girls to totally move on from the whole thing.”
“There’s energy there,” the coach says of Team Kim’s present mood. “Their life is in a lot better place, now, than it was three years ago. Nobody’s (now) taking advantage of them. The situation was just terrible before.”
In November, Team Kim re-established themselves with a victory in the Korean women’s national final. They defeated Kim Min-ji’s squad, the youngsters who had largely replaced them on the world scene.
Getting up to world competitive levels—quickly—will be a tall task for Team Kim and Coach Gallant.
They’ll face Tirinzoni—the defending world champions—in their first game, and that comes after a season of mostly practice, with game action being a scarcity. “Our work’s cut out for us,” he says.
“I’m not sure how their performance will be. I know they’ve worked hard and they’ve practiced a lot. But if you haven’t played games, it’s a different feel. Different energy level.”
Being on the same ice surface once again is a sweet turn of events for Gallant and the Korean women’s champions. Not that there was any doubt about that, but proof of the heartfelt nature of the reunion came not long ago, when Gallant made a cameo on a Korean TV program that had Team Kim on as guests.
“One of the television shows in Korea asked me to do a little video to say ‘hello’ to them, to surprise them,” he says. “It was pretty funny seeing that because they weren’t expecting it. I got to see the reaction and the tears.”
See the tears, yes. Feel the hugs, no. Not until this week, that is. At long last the Canadian coach and the Korean curlers—the daughters that he never had—have gotten a real reunion, the one they’d been craving.
Now they can pick up where they’d left off, happily. And without the unwanted company of the trying circumstances of the past.