KYODO NEWS SERVICE
KUSHIRO, Japan — Excitement has reached a fever pitch in the Hokkaido hometown of Japan’s women’s curling team on Monday, a day after its silver medal-winning feat on the final day of the Beijing Olympics.
Millions in Japan tuned in to the Olympics to watch Loco Solare play Great Britain in the curling final, where they lost 10-3, and Kitami has seen an increase in media attention since curling put the city on the map.
A large banner draped down the front of the city hall in Kitami, the heartland of Japanese curling, to celebrate the country’s best-ever Olympic finish in curling after the team’s bronze in Pyeongchang four years ago.
At a commercial complex in front of Kitami station, its workers decorated the walls with posters congratulating the team to engage shoppers and build community spirit.
“The way they kept their smiles on the big (Olympic) stage and carried themselves with dignity, that was inspiring. I hope this energizes local communities,” said Mitsugu Kano, one person putting up posters.
The company that makes the cheesecakes that in 2018 curling fans became obsessed with when they saw team members eating them as halftime snacks saw their products sell out at various shops as the team moved closer to a medal.
A special version wrapper bearing the Loco Solare logo became a huge hit.
Visitors flocked to Tokoro shrine in Kitami to buy miniature curling stone charms that became a sold-out success in 2018. Three members of the Loco Solare were born and raised in Tokoro, a tiny town with a population of 3,400.
Kazuyuki Mikado, the 55-year-old chief priest of the shrine who has experience and knowledge of the game, hoped that the attention on curling will continue after the Olympic fever fades.
“It would make me happy if these products related to athletes play a role in increasing interest in the sport,” he said.
From Bronze to Silver
Skip Satsuki Fujisawa and team achieved Japan’s best Olympic curling result, four years after earning its first medal in the sport, a bronze, at the Pyeongchang Games.
“The color of the medal has changed from four years ago, but to be honest, I’m a bit disappointed,” Fujisawa said. “But I’m really happy I could play until the final day with these teammates, and I’m so proud of the team.”
Loco Solare advanced to the gold medal game by stunning world champion and tournament favorite Switzerland 8-6 in the semifinal.
But Great Britain, beaten for bronze by Japan in 2018, dominated the rematch at Beijing’s National Aquatics Centre, starting strongly and eventually sealing the contest with four points in the seventh end.
The gold medal swept away unhappy memories for British skip Eve Muirhead, who missed badly with a chance to win bronze with her last shot of the tournament in South Korea.
“In Pyeongchang, coming fourth was incredibly tough,” Muirhead said. “It took me a long time to get over that and even now I still think of that shot. Hopefully it will be out of my mind now.”
Her Scotland-based team had already exacted a measure of revenge for that defeat by overwhelming Japan 10-4 before the two sides finished the round-robin phase of the tournament with identical 5-4 records.
Both advanced to the semifinals via a tiebreaker based on draw-shot accuracy, while Canada, which also finished the round robin 5-4, was eliminated.
Despite falling in the final, Fujisawa and her teammates — Yumi Suzuki, the Yoshida sisters, Chinami and Yurika, and reserve Kotomi Ishizaki — once again provided one of Japan’s most enthralling Winter Olympic storylines.
“It was a wonderful experience, I had so much fun,” lead Yurika said. “Of course we lost, but to be here with all my teammates and (coach J.D. Lind)…I am just super grateful for everything.”
Starting the final with the hammer, Great Britain opened with a two-ender, then made Fujisawa take a difficult last shot to prevent a steal in the second.
The European champions blanked the third to retain the hammer but could only take one in the fourth, its bid for a pair coming up short on a heavy final throw.
Japan trailed 4-1 after the fifth, giving up one with the hammer after Fujisawa could not find the target on a hit-and-roll attempt.
It had to settle for one in the sixth after its second counter rolled centimeters too far for a two-ender.
Four-time Olympian Muirhead effectively ended the contest in the seventh with a takeout that gave her team four counters and an 8-2 lead. With Great Britain taking another two in the ninth, Japan conceded without playing the 10th end.
Defending Olympic champions Sweden defeated Switzerland 9-7 on Saturday to take bronze.
After the team collected its silver medals, Lind spoke proudly of the players who have helped bring their once-fringe sport to mainstream attention in Japan.
“The best trait of this team is how positive they are and how they work together through difficult situations,” Lind said. “I only hope that everybody (in Japan) is proud of what they did and can relate to their spirit out there.”
Muirhead, who has staked her place among curling’s greats, also spoke fondly of a Japanese team that has shared some of the defining moments of her career.
“I’m super happy for those girls to get on the podium beside me,” the 31-year-old said. “We always have strong battles, so it’s really nice to stand next to them.”
The curling silver on the last day of the Beijing Games brings Japan’s final medal tally to a record 18 medals — three gold, six silver and nine bronze.