Randi Griffin knew she was doing something unique when she left North Carolina to play ice hockey for South Korea’s national women’s hockey program.
Griffin, a 29-year-old from Apex, N.C., is poised to be part of Olympic history as a member of a unified South and North Korea women’s hockey team that will compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics next month in Pyeongchang. It’s the first time that the countries will play together in one sport in the Games
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced Saturday that the unified women’s team will be formed by adding 12 North Koreans to South Korea’s existing 23-player roster.
The move is part of a breakthrough deal hammered out in Switzerland. North Korea will send 22 athletes — 15 women and seven men — to compete in ice hockey, figure skating, short track speedskating and cross-country and alpine skiing.
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The women’s hockey team will skate under a unification flag and compete as Korea, dropping the geographical designations of each country.
“This was not an easy journey,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in Switzerland, adding that “I’m sure it will be a very emotional moment, not just for all Koreans but also the entire world.”
Awaiting the decision to combine the Korean hockey teams caused some uneasy moments for Griffin. She first heard about the plan for unification Wednesday, hours before she boarded a plane to return to South Korea after a brief visit to the United States.
“Honestly, I have no idea what that means for our roster, particularly for players like myself who are dual citizens and might not fit into to this unified Korean narrative,” she said at the time.
Those fears faded Saturday for Griffin, a former Harvard University forward who started playing hockey growing up in the Raleigh area.
“My mother was really into figure skating, so she decided she wanted her daughters to try that,” Griffin said. “I never liked figure skating and in 1998, I was 10 years old, that was the first time women’s hockey was in the Olympics. I remember watching that and telling my mom ‘That’s what I want to do.’ So I switched to hockey at that point and then grew up playing with boys in the Carolina area.”
Korea Ice Hockey Association officials recruited Griffin in 2014 to help build an Olympic team in a country where hockey isn’t a dominant sport.
Under pressure to build a competitive Olympic hockey team in a hurry, South Korea officials scoured the United States and Canada for players, checking college and amateur team rosters for players with Korean-sounding names.
They initially missed Griffin, the daughter of a Korean mother and white father, because of her last name.
When South Korean officials learned about her from the parent of a Korean-Canadian player they were scouting, they immediately sent Griffin an email asking whether she would be interested in joining their Olympic effort.
“I thought it might be a joke or some kind of very specific scam. I just ignored it,” said Griffin, who was four years removed from her college hockey days. “I got two more emails, then someone called my dad and was, like, ‘Randi’s not answering her emails, we want to make sure we have the right email address, we really want her to write back to us.’ So my dad called me and he was, like, ‘I think this is real.”’
A year passed between the initial email and the time Griffin, a Duke University anthropology graduate school student, got on South Korean ice.
Now, she calls joining the team and playing for the country of her mother and grandparents “an amazing, life-changing experience.”
“Sharing this with my grandparents and seeing how much it means to them to see me wearing this jersey and to know that I’m living in (South Korea) and...in some ways having an experience that could help me to understand their experience as immigrants, it’s really a cool experience that’s brought me closer to them,” Griffin said.
Griffin is one of four North Americans of Korean heritage on the unified team’s roster. Caroline Park, a forward who played for Princeton University; Danelle Im, a forward who skated for Toronto’s Ryerson University, and Marissa Brandt, who played defense for Minnesota’s Gustavus Adolphus College, are the others. Brandt’s younger sister, Hannah, is a forward on the U.S. women’s Olympic hockey team.