GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Randi Griffin never envisioned a Winter Olympics experience quite like this while growing up in Apex, N.C.
Raucous crowds in an almost-packed hockey arena. Nearly 100 cheerleaders clad in red jumpsuits and 1980s-style pep rally gear chanting and swaying in a regimented style. A sea of white and pastel blue flags being waved not for a country, but for a dream.
Welcome to a Korean women’s unified hockey team game at the Kwandong Hockey Centre, where the final score isn’t as important as the political message sent by South and North Korean athletes playing on one team.
The merger was done to symbolize the hopes of spurring political discussions toward a unified Korea, or at least a de-escalation of tensions between South Korea and a North Korea that’s aggressively ramped up its nuclear program and rhetoric against the United States.
Griffin, the daughter of a Korean mother and white father, has witnessed this puck diplomacy up-close as a forward on the unified team, a squad of 23 South Korean players and 12 skaters from the North.
“It’s been amazing, it’s the Olympics. The all-around experience here has been incredible,” said Griffin, who began playing hockey at Raleigh, N.C., area rinks and skated for Harvard University. “I feel very fortunate to be here.”
While the experience may be amazing, the hockey hasn’t been pretty. The Koreans lost their Olympic opener 8-0 to Switzerland on Saturday. They followed that up with a 8-0 defeat to Sweden on Monday night in a game where Griffin managed a shot on goal and a two-minute penalty.
“I think I also put one in my own net in the third period, so I guess it’s a wash,” she said.
But the Korean team’s games have been more about atmosphere than outcome. The crowds have come early and in a boisterously happy mood. Many of them come with tiny white and blue unification flags to wave during the game.
A legion from the 200 women cheerleaders that North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un dispatched to Pyeongchang (cheerleaders outnumber the 22 North Korean athletes here) have prominent seats in the arena. They cheer, sing, and sway in a regimented, almost militaristic style, often ignoring the American pop music or Korean boy band hits blaring over the arena’s loudspeakers.
“We’ve never played before crowds quite like this,” said Griffin, 29. “The North Korean cheerleaders are very interesting. They are very choreographed. Never quite seen anything like it. It’s so different.”
What happened after the unified team’s opener defeat was also different.
Normally, presidents don’t visit with losing teams. But South Korean President Moon Jae-in, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, ventured to the unified team bench after the game and posed for pictures.
Moon, Bach and others are hoping that the symbolism of the women playing together will invigorate talks between the North and South.
But the unified women’s team isn’t always unified. The North Korean players sleep in different quarters and ride separate buses from their South Korean teammates.
And a minimum of three North Korean players dress for games, per agreement between the Korean governments, the IOC, and the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Organizing Committee.
“We do eat meals together, we’re in the locker room together and there’s definitely a lot of effort made to connect,” Griffin said. “I think on the ice, you can connect through the fun of playing the game. And that’s been there, for sure.”
Griffin’s road to the Winter Olympics is an improbable one. She caught the hockey bug in the Raleigh area when she was 10 years old and saw women competing in the Winter Games for the first time in 1998. She had ambitions playing for the United States someday, but those dreams were crushed the minute she stepped on the ice with three Olympians at Harvard.
“My freshman year, Julie Chu was a senior and she had been one of my heroes from Team USA growing up. Then there was Caitlin Cahow from Team USA and Sarah Vaillancourt, who was a phenomenal player for Canada,” she said. “To be completely honest, playing with them made me realize that I had no hope. When I got on the ice with those girls for the first time and saw how powerful they were, how talented they were, I kind of realized ‘OK, this is as far as I go.’ ”
Then South Korea came calling.
Out of competition for four years, Griffin received an email from South Korean hockey officials asking whether she’d be interested in being part of their Olympic effort.
She thought the email was a hoax and ignored it and follow-up emails for months. She finally responded when someone contacted her father, Thomas Griffin. He told his daughter “I think this is real.”
Korea Ice Hockey Association officials initially bypassed Griffin when they were looking for hockey talent in the United States and Canada because they were scouring college and amateur rosters for players with Korean last names.
They learned about Griffin from the parent of a Korean-Canadian player they were scouting and quickly sent the email invite.
“The guy who wrote me said something about seeing videos of me playing in college,” she said. “I tried to convey that that was a long time ago, I’m not how I would fit in with the team.”
Griffin says the Olympic experience has brought her family closer. Parents Thomas and Elizabeth Griffin traveled to Pyeongchang to cheer their daughter on. So have her grandparents, Peter Taidoo Kang and Margaret Hyosook Kang who moved to Chicago from South Korea in the 1970s.
They all wore Korean hockey jerseys with Griffin’s No. 37 on the back at Saturday’s game against Switzerland.
“Randi chose my mom’s birth year as her number. That’s her way of saying ‘Thank you,’ ” Elizabeth Griffin said. “My father says for him to go back to Korea, it’s like coming full circle.”