Caroline Park ’11 grew up near Toronto and dreamed of playing hockey for Canada in the Olympics. Next week, she’ll have that opportunity — but without the maple leaf on her jersey. Park, now a naturalized citizen of South Korea, is a member of the Korean unified women’s hockey team, which opens competition against Switzerland Feb. 10. After the Winter Games, she plans to return to her third year of medical school at Columbia University and pursue a career in orthopedics. She spoke with PAW in late January.
How did you first hear that this was a possibility, that you could you could play for Korea in the Olympics?
It’s kind of a long story. I graduated from Princeton in 2011, played hockey throughout college, and after graduating I moved to New York to work in clinical research because I was planning to apply to med school.
In 2013, I got an email from someone who worked for the Korean Ice Hockey Association, and initially, when I read it, I thought it was spam or I thought it was a prank someone was playing on me. I was very skeptical. One of my neighbors, Danelle [Im], another Canadian, was also contacted. And so my dad said you should respond and see where it goes, if you’re interested.
I still loved to play — I was playing at Chelsea Piers, playing with a bunch of men’s-league teams, so I thought, “Hey, this could be a fun opportunity to keep playing competitively.” So I responded to this email, and it happened really quickly. They wanted me to come to Korea to essentially try out for the team. I flew out to Korea within a week of getting that email and skated with the team for about two weeks. And they kind of got the ball rolling in terms of getting us our citizenship.
Had you been to Korea before?
Nope. I grew up in Canada and only moved to the States for college. I had never been to Korea. Both my parents were born in Seoul, South Korea, and my parents always talked about it — this is something that we really should do one time, bring you guys to Korea and kind of introduce you to your motherland — and we never had the chance because we were so busy playing hockey growing up. The first time I went to Korea was to basically try out for the team, so I thought that was kind of a happy coincidence.
What were your first impressions of the level of hockey in Korea?
The first year, it was a much different team than now — a lot has changed since 2013. Definitely the style of play is much different from North American hockey. North American hockey is definitely more physical. [Korean players] rely less on physicality but more on speed. Progressively, over the years, they’ve changed the coaching. They brought in a Canadian coach, and that helped with bringing in systems that I was more accustomed to. That’s helped to grow the program.
In terms of language or culture, was it difficult to get to know your teammates?
Growing up my parents used a mix of Korean and English, or Konglish, at home, so I grew up understanding pretty much everything, and then I would respond in English. So speaking [Korean] was a little bit rough. Growing up, my parents were very adamant about emphasizing that I was Korean-Canadian. They didn’t want me to lose touch with Korean culture. Personally, I found acclimating to Korean hockey not that difficult.
A funny story was that the first time I went out there, they didn’t think I understood Korean, so I was in the change room and the girls were saying some things about me in Korean because they didn’t think I could understand — “these girls are coming from Canada, I can’t believe they can’t speak or understand Korean,” kind of making fun of us — and then at the very end, I said in Korean I can understand everything you’ve said. I think after that they started giving me a little more respect.
Your team is obviously going to be in the spotlight as the team from the host nation, but now you have this added attention of playing side-by-side with athletes from North Korea. How did the team react when the idea of a unified team was announced?
It was a mix of emotions, but I think generally, the team has been very accepting of it. There’s only so much within our control, and I think the team has sort of rallied with the decision and accepted it. Everyone is working hard to figure out how to make sure that we are a team.
Has it changed much of your preparation?
They brought over 12 [North Korean] players, so it’s a fair amount of new players to add to the roster. It does make things a little tricky in terms of figuring out how to practice because it’s a little difficult to have 35 players on the ice. But the players from North Korea have been very hard-working and eager to learn about our systems and to adapt to the team. That makes things infinitely easier.
From a personal perspective, what are you most looking forward to at the Olympics?
Playing for the host country and playing in South Korea is one of the most exciting things. This is the first time that South Korea is fielding an ice hockey team, let alone a unified ice hockey team, so I think this is a great opportunity for us to grow the sport in Korea and show how far the program has come.
It’s such a privilege [to play in the Olympics]. I feel very lucky to be in this situation. Every kid in Canada who grows up playing hockey dreams of playing at the Olympics and that was always a dream of mine.
Interview conducted and condensed by B.T.