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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 20:25 GMT

Warm welcome for Olympic stars

Great Britain's Olympic gold winning curling team have been given a rousing reception on their return to the UK.

The all-Scottish women's team were greeted by crowds of well-wishers, photographers and television camera crews at Heathrow Airport.

The five-member squad, dressed in Team GB tracksuits with their gold medals around their necks, flew in from Calgary in Canada after their success last week in the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

They then travelled on to Glasgow where they were given an even more enthusiastic welcome by friends, family and Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell.

"We are still coming to terms with the celebrity status. It will take us a wee while to adjust"
Rhona Martin

Rhona Martin, Margaret Morton, Fiona MacDonald, Debbie Knox and Janice Rankin won the first GB Winter Olympics gold since the success of ice skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean at the Sarajevo Winter Games in 1984.

A lone piper in Highland full regalia played the ecstatic sportswomen into the crowded foyer of a major hotel at Glasgow Airport.

Delighted family members held aloft glittering banners welcoming the team home.

Team captain Mrs Martin, who carried the UK national flag at the game's closing ceremony, said she was thrilled with the welcome.

'Psychology helped'

She said: "It has been unbelievable, something I could never imagine.

"When we arrived at Heathrow it was just the same as the welcome here, it was absolutely fabulous".

The skipper then recalled the winning stone she threw to clinch gold.

"Throwing the stone at the time was a routine shot. The girls had played well and had kept the house open for me," she said.

"I have played it a few times in my mind and I think I have missed it several times. The psychology we have done over the years helped."

She said winning gold was "absolutely tremendous" but the adulation was something else to deal with.

She added: "We are still coming to terms with the celebrity status. It will take us a wee while to adjust.

"If we can raise the profile of the sport it will be great."

Debbie Knox, from Lochgelly in Fife, said she hoped their success would increase the appeal of the sport throughout schools in Scotland.

Fiona MacDonald from Inverness said she was looking forward to the reception she and Janice Rankin, also from the Highland city, would receive when they returned home.

Mrs Martin also spoke of her surprise at discovering her newest fan, Olympic gold medallist Steven Redgrave who approached her at a celebratory dinner and asked for her autograph.

Mrs Martin said: "Steve is my sporting hero, he's just fantastic. He asked us to sign a T-shirt for one of his fundraising campaigns and I thought, 'Wait a minute, he's asking me, I should be asking him'."

First Minister Jack McConnell congratulated the team on their "magnificent achievement" and called for Scotland to exploit the tourism possibilities of winter sports.

He said: "Everyone in Britain is proud of this team. I hope they and Alain Baxter will inspire many more Scots to take up curling and skiing.

"Scotland's success in Salt Lake City has brought us to the world's attention. This is a great opportunity."

About 5.6 million people in the UK tuned in to watch the nail-biting final stone by Mrs Martin, which secured victory against Switzerland and helped lift the sport of curling out of obscurity in the UK.

Britain had its best winter games since the Second World War, winning a gold and two bronze medals.

Alain Baxter, 28, from Aviemore, who won bronze in the men's slalom - Britain's first skiing medal - was expected to return to Scotland later in the week.

Alex Coomber, also 28, from Somerset, who won bronze in the women's skeleton bob, returned home on Saturday.

A group of Labour MPs has tabled a House of Commons motion congratulating all of the British Olympic team winners.

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