Q&A with Seth Berkman, author of ‘A Team of Their Own’

Plus an excerpt of his book on Korea’s first Olympic hockey team

There were a lot of storylines worth following in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, but one of the most compelling was the story of the Korean women’s Olympic team and it’s journey to the Winter Games.

Seth Berkman spent a year and a half chronicling the team’s road to PyeongChang, witnessing all the highs and lows that come with putting together an Olympic team. Afterwards, he wrote a book detailing the team’s trip to the Olympics in a book called A Team of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History, now available wherever books are sold.

The Ice Garden spoke with Berkman via email about the process of writing the book.

Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Ice Garden: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Berkman: Figuring out how to handle the sudden insertion of North Korea into the narrative. Originally, the focus was going to be on the South Korean national team making their Olympic debut in 2018. Rumors about a Unified team actually began surfacing in the summer of 2017, when Do Jong-hwan was named South Korea’s new minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

Shortly after Do took office, he said in an interview that it would be great if North Korea would compete in the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, perhaps on a Unified hockey team...While that initial talk fizzled out, there was always this cloud hanging over the team, like what if it were to really happen?

Even after Kim Jong-un gave his now infamous speech on Jan. 1, 2018, where he said he wanted to send North Korean athletes to the Olympics, the South Korean players didn’t think it was going to happen...I was with the team in Minnesota in January, where they held their final pre-Olympic training camp. The players were mostly nonchalant about the merger rumors and they didn’t find out until they landed back at Incheon Airport outside of Seoul, returning from Minnesota.

I knew the North Korea component could not be ignored and it would become a critical piece of the story. But my original intention in writing this book was to tell the stories of the South Korean players, which I thought on their own merit stood out. I kept that in mind throughout writing, making sure that the focus always remained on the original team, while doing the necessary weaving in of just how big a story it was that North Korea and South Korea made their first Unified Olympic team.

TIG: How long did it take to do all the research/interviews for it? You spoke to a lot of different people over a long period of time - how did that work logistically for you?

Berkman: The reporting was done over a year and half. There were times though where I’d go a month or two without speaking to players. To start at the beginning, the “imports” (North Americans with Korean heritage, like Marissa Brandt), were my gateway into the team. So I was able to speak to them pretty regularly, even though several of the imports were busy with grad school and jobs and such. The imports didn’t move to South Korea full-time until 2017, so it wasn’t hard to get them on the phone or e-mail them when questions popped up.

Coach Sarah Murray was always gracious in providing access and time to talk, and that was extremely helpful and I am very thankful for that. Interviewing the South Korean nationals proved a bit more challenging, though. Almost half the team are teenagers and in school they learn English. But a lot of the younger players were really shy in speaking English. I learned later when I’d email questions to some of the more fluent South Korean players, they’d ask the imports to help them articulate most of the questions. So I tried to keep my initial conversations with them pretty basic—when they came to Minnesota every few months for training, I’d usually go out there for a week or so.

I wanted to have a final in-depth sit-down interview with the South Korean players, which I scheduled for after the Olympics. However, since so many of the players were still in school, I had to wait until the summer of 2018 to travel back to Seoul. I hired a fixer who translated dozens of hours of interviews with the players, and that really provided a lot of the insight I had been seeking. One problem with this timeline, though, was my deadline was approaching for the first draft, so when I returned from Seoul, every day the rest of that summer was basically spent writing at Columbia University, from when I woke up until 11pm when doors closed.

Another challenge was earlier on, in the gaps where I wasn’t doing interviews, I was researching a lot on Korean history and culture. Despite being born in Seoul, I never had too much of a connection to South Korea.

TIG: What was your favorite moment during researching/interviewing for/writing this book?

Berkman: Probably my in-depth interviews I was able to conduct with the South Korean players. I had already come to know the imports very deeply, but I was surprised, informed and warmed by the South Koreans and their stories.

For example, one player, Cho Mi-hwan, I never could get a strong read on. She was in her mid-20s and loved K-pop, but I wasn’t sure if she was as committed to hockey as some of the other players. But she was an extremely deep thinker on matters related to the team, her identity, and what the whole experience of the past few years meant. One of my favorite kind of postscripts is that Mihwan always wanted to be able to communicate more with the imports, but never felt her English was strong enough. After the Olympics she retired, took her savings and moved to New Zealand for a year to learn English, so she could better converse with the imports whenever that time came again.

One of the highlights of the book personally was how the team evolved and kind of gave this exchange of information that elevated both the imports and South Korean players lives tremendously. For example, living in South Korea and being around South Koreans provided a missing piece in many of the imports lives, many of whom struggled with their identity and connection to “feeling Korean” for much of their lives. In return, they opened up the South Korean players to explore more progressive feelings, many of which are taboo to speak about openly. This included becoming more open about struggling with depression or discussing sexuality, emotions that many of the South Koreans buried. But with the imports, they could become an open book and learn in a way it is OK to feel this way or think that the certain way something is viewed in Korea is not necessarily the norm elsewhere or even right.

TIG: Who gives the best quotes?

Berkman: Randi Griffin. Even before joining the team, you could tell she had thought deeply about her own identity, being half-Korean. She experienced racism in America, but also felt shunned by Koreans here at times, too. I could relate to that. Randi was also a wonderful reader of a room. In interviewing her college coach, Katey Stone at Harvard, Stone gave this quote about how Randi had impeccable timing in knowing when to insert herself into a team dynamic, whether that be verbally or leading by example. Randi was not always the most vocal person—she never seemed like a rah-rah locker room leader—but you could see that quality Stone mentioned play out time and again with the South Korean national team.

One of my favorite, more humorous Randi quotes is when the North Koreans first came, they had these really basic, almost fake-sounding conversations.. At lunch one day, they start talking about ice cream, and one of the North Korean players said in Pyongyang they love ice cream, they have shops with three different flavors. And Randi’s reaction was, if we ever take them to Baskin Robbins, they’re going to defect immediately.

TIG: Obviously, the combination of North Korea and South Korea was a big twist in this story. Was there anything else you learned while writing it that surprised you?

Berkman: Shin So-jung was one of my favorite players to talk to. As followers of the NWHL know, Sojung was kind of a fan and team favorite, despite her limited time in the league. She can be quiet, but is very magnetic when you get to know her personally. There are two great Sojung anecdotes. One is when she joined the Riveters in the NWHL’s second season, there was a team party. The team had a lot of turnover from the year before, so there’s still a feeling out process going in within the locker room. One former Riveter noted how you had Wisconsin players and Minnesota players on the same team now, and as we know emotions that rivalry can carry on even after graduation. So there’s this team party and a lot of people are still kind of tentative to mingle, then Sojung shows up with a bottle of champagne and a single can of Budweiser. Everyone’s like, “What? What’s with the champagne and lone can of beer?” Sojung explained the beer was for her and the champagne was for the team and popped open the bottle. Soon enough, players were taking turns passing around the bottle, and Sojung is just sitting down alone with her can of beer, smiling.

TIG: In a couple of sentences, give us an elevator pitch for the book.

Berkman: This is a book about family, identity and the search for belonging, which I think anyone can relate to. Yes, there’s the appeal of North Korea and random stories of kidnappings and North Korean players singing K-pop songs with risqué lyrics and scarfing down McDonald’s as they snuck away from the watchful eyes of government officials. But at its heart you have this team with a makeup unlike any other history, and they are all trying to find their place in the world. On this Olympic journey, they find that meaning together.

Below is an excerpt of the first chapter in Berkman’s book, A Team of Their Own.

Sojung had just allowed all eight goals in Korea’s Olympic debut in women’s hockey. The game had drawn global interest and created one of the most surreal atmospheres in sports history thanks to its political undertones and unprecedented intermingling of North and South Koreans in the crowd and on the ice. But all Sojung could think about was the 8–0 loss to Switzerland, which she felt responsible for. Throughout her life, Sojung was an Atlas-like figure on South Korea’s women’s hockey team, carrying the program’s destiny on her shoulders.

A blowout was not how Sojung envisioned the script playing out when, eighteen years before, at the precocious age of nine, she began skating with South Korea’s national hockey team, dreaming of one day representing her country in the Olympics. Sojung may have been the only child in South Korea to concoct such an ambition at the time. She was the rarest of species in her homeland—a young, naturally talented female hockey player.

Sojung had only begun training two years earlier, when she was seven. In Seoul’s plentiful street markets, one can find almost anything from fishing tackle to parts for knockoff watches. However, hockey equipment, particularly for children, was as rare in the city as red diamonds. During her first practices, Sojung’s head bobbled around loosely inside her oversized adult helmet and the blade of her stick was bigger than her legs, but the quiet, only child of Seol Kyoungrang and Shin Kwangsik was never happier than when inside a rink, stopping shots coming from men more than twice her size. To this day, written on Sojung’s bedroom wall is the phrase “Life is simple. Eat sleep play hockey.”

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.