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Muirhead leads Britain's gold-medal hopes in Sochi

STIRLING, Scotland (AP) — She has taken to the catwalk at a New York fashion show, has been lined up for a photo shoot by a British tabloid and is possibly the most famous sportswoman in Scotland.

The words "curling" and "celebrity" aren't usually found in the same sentence, but brilliant play on the ice is ensuring plenty of exposure off it for British women's skip Eve Muirhead. "I enjoy it, although it's a bit weird," Muirhead said of her glamorous life away from the rink. "But we're trying to get the sport to grow because it's a sport that needs to grow. So it's always good to promote curling."

Already a world and European champion with Scotland, Muirhead is heading to February's Winter Olympics in Sochi looking to fill the gap on her curling resume. And for the second straight games, she and her British teammates will be the favorites for the gold medal.

Muirhead was only 19 when she competed at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. She lost five straight games after a good start and failed to make it past the round-robin stage. "I've looked back at it and we didn't train hard enough, didn't practice hard. We just weren't good enough," Muirhead said after a practice session at the Scottish Institute of Sport training base in Stirling. "I think I learnt from that, and for this cycle I've really stepped up everything. It's actually probably the best thing that could have happened to me."

Women's curling in Britain has undergone a generational shift since Rhona Martin, a 36-year-old from a small Scottish village, led Britain to an unlikely gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002. More than 6 million Britons stayed up into the early hours to watch Martin's team, labeled the "housewife superstars" by the British media, become overnight sensations in a sport many previously didn't even know existed.

Eleven years later, things have changed dramatically. British curling at the highest level has gone professional, a fund of 5 million pounds ($8.2 million) is dedicated to the country's Olympians over four years, and there is as much gym work as practice on the ice. Sports psychologists — in Britain's case, a former Bolshoi ballet dancer — and strength and conditioning coaches are part of the support staff.

The curlers themselves are much younger. Muirhead and teammates Anna Sloan, Vicki Adams and Claire Hamilton are all between 22 and 24, making them the youngest women's team in Sochi. "It's nice to see a young aspect to the sport, to show that you do need to be fit to be a curler," Sloan told The Associated Press in an interview. "Curling had the image of being an older sport but I think with us being young and showing we enjoy it so much, that's a healthy thing and hopefully we are going to get people to try it after the Olympics."

Muirhead's team is being held up as Britain's best chance of gold in Sochi, more than a decade after Martin delivered what is referred to in Britain as the "Stone of Destiny" in the 2002 Olympic final against Switzerland.

Muirhead was just 12 at the time, and recalls being allowed to stay up late on a school night to watch the final. No surprise given her father, Gordon, won a world championship in curling in 1999. "It was fantastic," she said. "Ever since that moment, you want to go there and do it yourself, don't you? It inspired me, for sure."

That night also changed Martin's life. She was shocked to see flag-waving crowds greet her at Heathrow Airport on her return to Britain. She was congratulated by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, awarded an honor by Queen Elizabeth II and invited to sit in the Royal Box at Wimbledon.

Martin was stopped everywhere she went and was hounded by the tabloid newspapers. "Football (journalists) were even phoning, asking me: 'What do you think of the new Scotland manager?' recalled Martin, who keeps her gold medal "in a cupboard, in its box, with the toilet rolls."

That level of media glare is something Muirhead can expect, too, if she returns home from Russia with a gold medal. Britain doesn't have a strong tradition at the Winter Olympics, winning only nine golds since the first games in 1924. As a result, every champion is feted as a national icon.

Muirhead is used to coping with pressure and attention. A youth champion in bagpiping and golf, she turned down golf scholarships from a number of American universities to take up curling, with her accomplishments on the ice tracked from the moment she won the first of her four world junior titles, in 2007.

Off the ice, Muirhead was invited by actor Sean Connery to stride the catwalk at the annual Scottish-themed "Dressed to Kilt" fashion show in New York in 2010 and has a photo shoot scheduled with The Sun newspaper in Britain. She is a big name in Canada, curling's stronghold, and even bigger in Scotland, where the sport originated.

Muirhead remains level-headed, though — in her own words, a "normal down-to-earth person." And with Martin now coach of the British women's team, Muirhead couldn't have a better mentor in her corner heading into Sochi.

"Obviously there is a target on their back." Martin said. "They are world champions so that's just reality. They know every single game there will be tough but . they have the potential. It's just about performing on the right day."

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