Korean Olympic hockey parents find unified pride

Although suspicious of political posturing and angry to learn their South Korean daughters would share ice time with their northern neighbors these Olympic parents now see their athletes as 'marking a chapter in the history' of inter-Korean relations.

Julio Cortez/AP
Heo Saeng-gum (l.) and her husband Kim Woo Il (r.) react during an interview before entering the Kwandong Hockey Center to watch their daughter Kim Selin play for the Koreas during a women's hockey game against Sweden at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea on Feb. 12.

When the Koreas suddenly began the push to form a joint Olympic team in women's hockey, angry parents of South Korean players considered public demonstrations against the notion. They thought the plan would cost their daughters time on the ice – and, just as important, put them right in the crossfire of inter-Korean politics.

Once the Pyeongchang Olympics opened, though, attitudes started changing.

As Team Korea becomes one of the hottest newsmakers in the Winter Games, their daughters are drawing crowds of spectators and journalists who want to know more about a squad at the center of rare rapprochement moves between the two rival Koreas split along the world's most heavily fortified border for 70 years.

"I'm so proud of my daughter," said Woo Hee-jun, mother of South Korean substitute goalie Han Dohee, who hasn't hit the ice in all three of her team's preliminary-round matches. "If Dohee plays, I would be happy to see that, but I still come to the stadium to root for the joint team because she's part of it."

All three games at the Kwandong Hockey Center were filled with thousands of spectators chanting "we are one" and waving a blue-and-white "unification flag" that North and South Korean hockey players put on their uniforms instead of their national flags. Hundreds of others waited in lines to enter the stadium – a highly unusual scene in a country without a professional women's hockey team.

The team's first two matches against Switzerland and Sweden both ended in crushing 8-0 defeats. It lost again to historic rival Japan 4-1 on Wednesday. But world media cared more about the historic significance of the games, rather than scores, and the team's first goal recorded Wednesday. After the debut game Saturday, Swiss players and their coach were bombarded with questions about how they felt going up against such a historically important team.

After her team's Japan match, Ms. Han went up to the stand to meet her mother, grandmother, and other family members.

"I feel sorry to my family because I failed to play on the games. I should train harder," Han said. "I really want to [play] and I will just get myself prepared to play anytime."

Ms. Woo said she had a "bittersweet feeling" because the Korean team clinched its first goal but that she couldn't see her daughter on the rink again.

The squad's formation initially triggered a serious backlash in South Korea, with a dozen North Korean athletes being added to South Korea's 23-person team. A survey showed that about 70 percent of South Koreans opposed the team's makeup.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon tossed fuel on the fire after local media cited him as saying his nation's hockey team was already "out of the medal range" while backing the idea of a combined team. He later offered a public apology, though he said his comments were taken out of context.

Woo said she was initially quite frustrated at the joint team plans. The 12 North Korean hockey players include a goalie – her daughter's position. "It didn't make sense," she said. "But it was something the government was pushing to do, and we are weak so that we had no other options [other than] to follow its decision."

Woo said she's a bit relieved after her daughter asked her not to worry too much because she and the North Korean goalie, Ri Pom, could learn from each other. Han confirmed Wednesday that she doesn't feel any rivalry against Ms. Ri, saying she's getting along with all 12 North Korean players. She described them as "innocent" and "pure-hearted."

Heo Saeng-gum, mother of South Korean defender Kim Selin, who appeared in both of the preliminary round matches, said she feels very sorry for the South Korean players who could lose playing time. "If somebody is taken off an entry, they would suffer the pains and a sense of loss."

Nevertheless, Ms. Heo considers her daughter an "honor of our family." Her husband, Kim Woo Il, said he's proud of his daughter for "marking a chapter in the history" of inter-Korean relations and paving the way for a chance to promote hockey in South Korea.

Every move by North and South Korean players was in the news. They held birthday parties for two North Korean athletes, took a selfie together, created a dictionary to overcome a linguistic divide between the Koreas and visited an east coast beach together to enjoy winter breezes and sodas.

On Monday night, when South Korean forward Choi Jiyeon spoke to reporters that she's grown close to two North Korean players, Hwang Chung Gum and Kim Hyang Mi, she called them "eonni," a Korean word used when a woman refers to an elder sister or friend.

"The eonnis approached and talked to me first, and they cared for me," Ms. Choi said.

After the Olympics, Korean players will be separated, probably for good, because the two Koreas bar their citizens from visiting each other or exchanging phone calls, letters, and emails.

"The other day," Woo said, "Dohee told me she'll likely cry because there are no ways to stay in touch with North Korean players once they leave here."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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