In the sporting world, at least domestically, this has been the year of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. This summer, the World Cup champions held off all challengers to defend their title, all while fighting for equal pay against their own federation. They became iconic female role models in the process, due to their irrepressible swagger and a willingness to ruffle some feathers.
A year before the USWNT took center stage, the South Korea Women’s National Hockey Team was commanding attention for similar reasons. Before U.S. soccer stars Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle captivated American audiences on and off the field, Shin So-jung and Grace Lee forced South Korea to rethink decades of entrenched norms–including conflict with their northern neighbors–as they competed at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Born in Seoul and raised in New Jersey, New York Times reporter Seth Berkman spent a year embedded with the team as it prepared for the 2018 Games on home ice in PyeongChang. His first book, A Team of Their Own, tells their unlikely underdog story. Beyond chronicling the team’s wins and losses, Berkman crafts a moving account of women speaking up, leveraging their platform, and questioning the status quo that feels particularly apt in 2019.
When South Korea created its first women’s national team for the 1998 Asian Winter Games, there was only one prerequisite for players: be a woman. The ’98 roster consisted of former figure skaters, speed skaters, and a field hockey goalie. Its star player was a North Korean defector.
Berkman describes other early versions of the team as “groups of misfits, the Bad News Bears on ice.” Banned from eating in the cafeteria with the rest of Korea’s teams, players were forced to buy takeout ramen with their $200 monthly stipends to eat in the hallways before practices. Results for these early squads were not encouraging, including a historic 0-29 thrashing by Japan in 2004.
Since 2014, the team had embarked on a reclamation of the program to prepare for the 2018 Winter Games. They worked to overcome years of poor results due to disinterest in the program, while quietly enduring interference from Korean officials whose decisions seem to be shaped more by political motivations than the team’s best interests.
Further complicating matters, as a condition for the team’s host nation bid to the 2018 Games, the International Olympic Committee required the team to incorporate a group of talented American and Canadian imports with Korean heritage. Longtime fixtures like So-jung–the team’s goalie, best player, and Atlas figure–must suddenly accommodate players like Lee, a bubbly, teenage forward from Colorado.
The import players represent a threat to the spots belonging to established, Korean-born players, and relations between the two groups are initially frosty. But over time, the team bonds through a sort of diasporic cultural exchange. Berkman writes scenes of team members dancing to K-Pop music in the basement of a Minnesota lake house after a series of exhibition games and group outings to Seoul’s Gangnam district for Korean-style fried chicken.
As the team’s chemistry improves, so does their quality on the ice. They seem poised for a solid showing in PyeongChang. But two weeks before the Games begin, South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un jointly announce that Korea will be entering a unified women’s hockey team to the PyeongChang Olympics. North Korean players will join the team.
Yet again, the women are forced to adapt, doing their best to integrate another round of newbies. Although the North Koreans are not on par in skill, the groups find common ground through a shared passion for hockey, an otherwise obscure sport in Korean culture, north and south alike. Korean officials, meanwhile, publicly rationalize altering the national team’s roster mere weeks before the tournament by dismissing the team’s chances of even competing in the first place.
The unification was lauded globally as a culmination of improving relations between the two Koreas. To the team, those celebrating the unification didn’t seem to acknowledge the additional burden it put on the players who had already overcome so much just to be there.
The joint squad did not win a game. Nevertheless, they played competitively and honorably, which made them an instant sensation in Korea. Given the worldwide coverage, the women’s hockey team may be the most significant unified sports effort in Korean history, helping to thaw decades of tensions and conflict.
The team was symbolic not only politically, but also as a cultural marker for Korean women. Berkman makes a point to emphasize how South Korean pop culture places a heavy emphasis on a particular set of beauty norms. Korean women are meant to have smooth faces, red lips, and perfect eyelids. Makeup stores line the streets of Seoul like Starbucks do in the U.S.
For weeks, the women of the national team, who largely do not fit these beauty norms, were the most famous people on the Korean Peninsula. And some were even outspoken about rejecting these entrenched standards.
“I didn’t like to look girly,” forward Lee Min-ji tells Berkman. “Even on the team if someone wears pink we’d say, ‘Oh, she’s wearing pink,’ like a joke.”
In the months following the Olympics, the team threatens the Korea Ice Hockey Association with a boycott. They demand that the KIHA improve working conditions and hire a new coach. Just like the USWNT, the squad receives a stern rebuke, even threats, from its governing body.
Berkman writes that the boycott “carried a very Western influence,” reflecting the complete integration of imports who were initially interlopers. By speaking up, the team rejects years of Korean corporate chaebol culture that discourages rocking the boat in any way.
An example of that Western influence: during the team’s night at the lake house, Lee decides to teach her teammates some American slang.
“So a ‘boss-ass bitch,'” she says. “Like us. What we’re doing. We’re all ‘boss-ass bitches.'”
The team nods in agreement. It’s a pure moment that feels very suited for the big screen, one that symbolically emphasizes this team’s connection across culture, language, and social norms. Amid ongoing movements centering gender equity, and with the USWNT dominating the conversation surrounding sports in America, A Team of Their Own arrives at a time that suggests we should all find ourselves nodding along.
Featured image courtesy of AP / Ahn Young-joon.