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American With Korean Heritage Will Play On Korea's Women Hockey Team At Olympics

Jan 28, 2018
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Olympics are just a couple of weeks away now, so we've been taking some time to meet some of the athletes who will be competing at the Games. And one of the biggest stories that emerged even before the festivities begin is the evolving relationship between South Korea - the host country - and North Korea. After negotiations, it was agreed that North Korean and South Korean Olympic teams will march under a unified Korean flag at the opening ceremonies. And the biggest compliment of North Korean athletes will be joining the women's ice hockey team, which will merge and play as one unified team.

Now that bit of sports diplomacy aside, you might have another reason to root for the Korean team. Her name is Randi Griffin. She was born and raised in North Carolina, and she joins us now from Jincheon, South Korea, where she is training for the upcoming Olympics. Welcome. Thanks so much for breaking away to talk to us for a little bit via Skype.

RANDI GRIFFIN: Yep, no problem.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people are used to watching professional players in the NHL take a break and go back and play for their countries of origin in the Olympics. I think people are used to that - in any Olympics - both summer or winter - people are used to that. But how is it that you, as an American citizen, are able to play for the Korean team?

GRIFFIN: Yeah, so this is obviously a very different situation. Back in 2014, I got an email from the Korean Ice Hockey Association, and they basically said, we just found out that we're going to the Olympics. They gave us automatic entry as the host country, but we don't have a lot of hockey players, so we're looking for North American-raised, Korean-heritage athletes to join our team and help bring up our level for the Pyeongchang Olympics.

So I went over for the first time in the summer of 2015, and I was there along with an American, Marissa Brandt, and a Canadian, Danelle Im. And for all of us, it was our first time there, and we met the team, we played in this little summer league, which was just three teams. The age range was, like, 13 to 40. And this was literally all of the Korean hockey players in existence. And I think for all of us, it was this combination of a great hockey experience but also a really cool cultural experience.

MARTIN: So your mom is Korean, as I understand it. Your mom...

GRIFFIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Immigrated from South Korea.

GRIFFIN: That's correct.

MARTIN: And I understand that there was a little bit of trouble finding you. I don't think that Griffin is a particularly common Korean name from what I understand. (Laughter) And I understand that when they first reached out to you, you actually ignored it because you thought it was a scam.

GRIFFIN: (Laughter) Yeah, that's true, but I'm a little embarrassed to say that. I'm actually pretty good friends now with the guy who sent me those emails, so I feel kind of bad when I have told the press that.

MARTIN: So how did they actually finally get in touch with you?

GRIFFIN: Yeah, so what I heard was that it was actually a player named Caroline Park - and Park is a Korean name. Their initial kind of search involved just scouring college hockey rosters in the U.S. and Canada, and they were looking for Korean names. So they found Caroline Park, and they reached out to her and her family. And Caroline Park was actually a Princeton grad - 2009 - so we overlapped for three years, and we played against each other.

MARTIN: And you played for Harvard.

GRIFFIN: I played for Harvard, yes. And...

MARTIN: So she knew - she steered them toward you.

GRIFFIN: Well, I think it was actually her dad because he was in the stands, and my mom was in the stands for a game, and I think they noticed each other because they're not used to seeing Korean people at a hockey game. And so they struck up a conversation, and that was how he found out that I was half Korean because I'm not sure if he would've known otherwise.

MARTIN: Here's the elephant in the room here - is that when they decided to combine the teams, it's been well reported in the South Korean press that some of the South Koreans aren't particularly happy about this, and I wonder if any of that has been communicated to you there.

GRIFFIN: Yeah, I think all the players on our team are very aware of that. I mean, we sit in the dining hall. We look up, and we're seeing ourselves on the news every night - like, us playing the North Koreans and they're talking about it.

MARTIN: And how are you dealing with that?

GRIFFIN: Honestly, we're trying not to pay too much attention to it because the way we're looking at it is this is completely out of our control. And with two weeks to go before the Olympics, we want to just focus on the athletics side of things and try not to pay attention to this.

MARTIN: So what's next for you after the Olympics? I know you're trying to focus on the Games, but what after that?

GRIFFIN: Well, I'm actually working on my dissertation still while I'm here. So I've had a very understanding dissertation committee who basically said as long as you're still working on your dissertation and progressing towards your degree, if you can manage that with your training schedule, then you can do it in Korea.

MARTIN: Well, then you obviously are very busy and so we're going to let you get back to your day. So thank you for taking time to speak with us. Good luck to you at the Games. And do you have a number yet so we can at least know you who you are with your mask on?

GRIFFIN: I do. My number is 37, and I'm actually wearing my Korean name, Hisu (ph), on my jersey.

MARTIN: OK. Well, that is Randi Griffin Hisu. She will be representing the unified Korean women's ice hockey team at the Olympic Games. She was kind enough to join us from training in Jincheon, South Korea. Randi, thanks so much for speaking with us. Good luck to you.

GRIFFIN: Yeah, thank you.

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