Monday, January 13, 2020

Books: "A Team Of Their Own" On Korean Hockey History At Olympics

A Team Of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History
By Seth Berkman
Hanover Square Press; hardcover; $26.99

In January 2018, a short time before the Winter Olympic Games would be held in PyeongChang, North and South Korea made the momentous decision to merge their women's ice hockey teams into one.

These teammates of Korean descent from all over the world and varied backgrounds, including a concert pianist, actress, high school student, and a convenience store worker were suddenly put into the international spotlight, the score of games inconsequential to the leaps made as the first ever Korean team overcame language, cultural, and political barriers to rewrite history.

Seth Berkman, who was born in Seoul and raised in New Jersey, made his firs trip back to South Korea for these Olympics, there to cover this team for the New York Times.  In the new book, A Team Of Their Own, he looks at the unlikely and inspiring story of these young, fierce women. 

Berkman looks at how they gained worldwide acceptance amidst immense political pressure, revealing the personal stories behind the various players, providing insights into how North Koreans live, and demonstrating what a unified Korea could look like.

South Korean goaltender Shin Sojung started training with the national team at the age of nine, and Berkman writes of her journey, "Sojung had barely turned fourteen when she made her debut for South Korea in 2004. She was so small that it seemed to be a competitive disadvantage to have her stand in goal, so she spent a majority of her time at forward. Some of her teammates were more than twice her age, but did not have a speck of Sojung's talent.

When South Korea formed its first women's national hockey team for the 1999 Asian Winter Games, the only requirement was that a candidate be female. They were mostly former figure skaters or speed skaters who had never picked up a stick. The goalie was a former field hockey player, and even included among their ranks was a defector from North Korea who had been a star for her former country's women's national team. South Korea's first women's hockey teams were groups of misfits, the Bad News Bears on ice. But Sojung always wanted them to be known as more.

Unlike the wunderind South Korean singers and dancers who are fawned over and bestowed with honorary titles like 'Nation's Little Sister' for displaying talent at an early age, Sojung toiled in anonymity. Throughout her teenage years her contemporaries were ogling K-pop magazine covers, dreaming of which stars they would marry, while Sojung, who was moved back to goalie for the 2007 Asian Winter Games, received pain-relieving injections in her back after every appearance in net for South Korea. The pucks clashing against her still-developing bones left bruises, but did not sting as much as the feeling after regularly losing games by twenty or more goals. The most lopsided loss in the National Hockey League (NHL)'s 101-year history was when the Detroit Red Wings bested the New York Rangers 15-0 in 1944. In one of Sojung's first games against rival Japan, her team lost 29-0, and Sojung faced over one hundred shots on goal. The South Korean national team was treated like a punching bag by opponents, even in their scrimmages against elementary and middle school boys' teams (since there were no other girls' or women's teams to play). Sojung's family and friends often wondered what drew her to an activity that reaped no tangible reward. At times, Sojurn wondered, too.

Sojung's mother originally tried sending her to ballet lessons, but she refused. Wearing leotards could never provide Sojung the feeling she had when putting on a goalie's mask. In her equipment, Sojung felt like a Transformer - a superhero on skates. 'I was a tomboy,' Sojung said. 'My mom wanted me to be more feminine, girly. Because I was an only child, she had her own wishes for her only daughter. She eventually said you can do whatever you want. However, she said if you do any sport professionally it should be golf, because with hockey you can't go to university or make a lot of money.'

Sojung's mother was correct. In 1998, twenty-year-old South Korean golfer Se Ri Pak took the LPGA Tour by storm, winning two major titles, including becoming the youngest-ever champion of the US Women's Open. Pak inspired a generation of South Korean girls to hit the links, where they'd amass hundreds of millions in dollars over the next two decades. Meanwhile, there were no girls' or women's hockey teams in South Korea at the high school, college, or professional level. Choosing to dedicate one's life to women's hockey in South Korea was a career choice with almost no future. For her entire life, Sojung would battle for acceptance in a culture and nation that treated female athletes in unpopular sports like pariahs."

A Team Of Their Own is one of the most compelling stories you will read about a team that had to overcome a lot of adversity and displayed determination and heroism in the process.

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