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    Wednesday, February 18, 1998

    Golden Girls return to warm welcome

     REGINA (CP) -- Sandra Schmirler and her gold-medal curling team returned home to a rousing welcome Wednesday night as hundreds of flag-waving fans packed into Regina airport to welcome their heroes.
     Curling's Golden Girls stepped off an 18-hour flight from Japan to a throng of cheering home-town faithful.
     The five women beamed as they were escorted through the adoring crowd by Mounties in full dress uniform to the drone of bagpipes and the rhythmic clap of well-wishers.
     "Thanks to everyone for coming out tonight," a smiling Schmirler said from an impromptu stage, bouncing her baby daughter Sarah on her lap.
     "It was an experience of a lifetime ... I'm just glad the curling gods were on our side."
     She also paid tribute to her teammates: Jan Betker, Joan McCusker, Marcia Gudereit and alternate Atina Ford.
     "I'd like to thank my team members. Without them I'd be in a pile of poop most ends," she said to laughs and applause.
     Schmirler and company made Olympic history in Japan on Sunday by becoming the first team to win a gold medal since curling became a full medal sport.
     They beat Denmark 7-5 in a closely fought contest that went into the 10th end.
     "We just dug as deep as we've ever had to do to pull this thing out," Schmirler recalled.
     The victory added to an incredible record for the team from Regina's Caledonian Club, which includes three world titles and six provincial championships.
     In a city where curling rivals hockey as the top sport, the crowd of young and old showed its appreciation with enthusiastic cheers and applause. Many people carried signs reading Welcome Home Golden Girls and Thanks For The Gold.
     "We came to show our support," said Helen Ell, who said she cried watching Schmirler win gold.
     "They're wonderful. They feel like family ... Certainly they curl well but they're also super ambassadors for the province and for the country."
     Mary Jesse brought her young son and daughter out for the festivities.
     "We're just delighted to support the Schmirler rink and so pleased that we've got gold medallists here in Regina," she said.
     Mayor Doug Archer showed just how seriously Regina takes curling. He proclaimed Sandra Schmirler Rink Week and said the city has erected signs on area highways reading Home of the Sandra Schmirler Rink.
     The team has a chance for even more glory this month. They are the favorites to win the Canadian women's curling championships -- the Scott Tournament of Hearts -- which start this weekend in Regina.
     A victory would give them another shot at the world championships April 4 in Kamloops, B.C.