She thought it was spam. Caroline Park, a Princeton graduate and former forward for the Tigers' women's hockey team, was working as a clinical research assistant at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City in 2013, when an email arrived from someone who said he worked with the Korean Ice Hockey Association. Would she be interested in joining Korea's national team? "I thought it was my dad playing a joke on me," says Park, who grew up near Toronto. "I was definitely skeptical."
It turned out to be no farce, and within a week Park was on a plane to Seoul, where she would spend two weeks training with the national team for a tryout. The KIHA had scoured the internet looking for players with Korean heritage -- or, at the very least, Korean-sounding names. (Park's parents, Sandy and Diana, emigrated from South Korea to Canada before Park was born, but they surrendered their Korean citizenship in the process.) Park, meanwhile, was applying to med school but still skating in men's leagues at Chelsea Piers, a rink in New York City. "I just saw this opportunity as a way to keep playing hockey competitively," she says. "And it was perfect timing. If I was already in med school, I wouldn't have been able to make the commitment. It was this buffering period where I was unsure what was next."
The first trip was daunting. Park didn't know what to expect -- she didn't know much about hockey culture in South Korea, or the personalities or lifestyles of her potential teammates. Even though she spoke Korean at home, she had never been to the country. The tryout included another Canadian. In the changing room before the first practice, they could sense tension lingering in the air. "We were sitting quietly, and I could hear some of the other girls talking smack about us in Korean," Park recalls.
So she finally interjected. "You know," she said in her teammates' native tongue. "I can understand everything that you're saying."
"After that it was like, 'Oh, OK," Park says. "They gave me a little more respect. And since then, everything has been great. In terms of adjusting to the team, the girls are so nice and welcoming. Even though we're not with each other all year, all the time, we're a team now. Every time I go back, it's like I never left."
Initially, Park just visited South Korea in the summer for a stint with the team. And then things intensified. In 2014, Park was told she could be on track for the 2018 Olympics, if she would obtain citizenship. The naturalization process was expedited because of her status as an athlete, and she studied for the test with others in her position -- including Mike Testwuide, an American with no Korean roots, who had simply been playing in the Asian Hockey League when Korean officials asked him if he would consider playing with the national team.
Park had to stand before a board and state why she deserved a position on the team, then take a written test -- about South Korean history -- and then an oral exam that culminated in her singing the country's national anthem. "It was definitely easier for me than Mike, because at least I spoke Korean," she says.
Park is one of five North Americans on the South Korean women's roster. "I didn't really have any ties there until I played hockey," says Park. "Being part of their first Olympic team, I have a lot of pride for what I'm part of now, and where my parents are from."
With citizenship, Park was now eligible for events like the World Championships, and her visits to South Korea became more frequent. The team brought in an entirely new staff, including head coach Sarah Murray, an American whose father, Andy Murray, has once coached the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues. The South Korean players also adopted a new style: Instead of game plans centering only on speed, they became more physical, a trait more typical of North American teams.
"In the last five years, hockey in Korea has changed significantly," Park says. "Bringing in coaches from North America, you bring in a different style of hockey, systems we were more accustomed to playing in college. There was also a total investment of resources in the country to build up the sport and our program."
Park's life intensified as well. In 2015 she was accepted to Columbia medical school, where she would work toward her goal of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
"It's one of the biggest challenges I've had to face," says Park. "You're trying to focus 100 percent on doing well in med school and taking care of patients, then in the back of my head I'm thinking, 'OK, I get out of the hospital at 8 o'clock, I need to eat dinner then go to the gym and train for an hour or two, then go back and study for my exam and prepare for the next day of hospital duties. Or sometimes it's, 'OK, I do this then I have to go to Korea for the weekend.'"
Park took a leave this year, during the middle of her clinical rotation, to prepare for the Olympics. "I finished a good chunk of it," she says. "But I also kind of left in the middle of things."
And then, less than a month before the opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang, Park's teammates were thrown another twist. The International Olympic Committee agreed to allow 12 North Korean women hockey players to join South Korea's 23-member team, a symbolic peace treaty between the countries.
It's an uncomfortable predicament: the Koreans were working on fielding their own, competitive team, and then suddenly found themselves being used as a political pawn.
At first, Park admits, the arrival of the North Koreans was met not with resistance, but frustration. It was going to be difficult to manage a different team dynamic -- especially this close to the Games. "Logistically, when you bring over 12 players, you have to figure some things out," Park says. "Locker room space, ice time. And it's hard to skate with 35 players on the ice."
She went on: "They've arrived a week ago, have been really thrown into it, and the girls have been super friendly and really eager to learn. They're trying to learn the systems we've been practicing for the last four years -- in a matter of weeks. The international spotlight is on them. It can't be easy for them. Personally for me, when I look at the big picture, I see the purpose of the Olympics and playing a sport, and it's something I'm proud to be a part of. I'm excited to be part of something historic."
Korea is one of eight teams in the women's hockey tournament at the Olympics and is in Group B for the preliminary round, along with Sweden, Switzerland and Japan. Park and her team will face the Swiss in their first game on Feb. 10, while an exhibition game with Sweden is scheduled the day before the opening ceremonies.
Park's parents will join her in South Korea -- her father is volunteering as a team host for the Canadian men's hockey team. After the Games she'll try to take some time off before returning to med school -- and then rejoin her South Korea teammates in April for the World Championships in Italy.
"I have some travel I'd like to do that med school is not really amenable to doing," she says. "So maybe I'll take off like a month."