Foreign athletes gain South Korean citizenship to compete in 2018 Winter Games
Story By: Emma Kalka
Photos: Courtesy of Korea Ice Hockey Association, Alexander Gamelin
Athletes gaining new citizenship to compete in the Olympics is nothing new. It’s been happening around the world for decades. In 2011, medal-winning short track skater Ahn Hyun-soo created an uproar when he gained Russian citizenship and became known as Victor Ahn. He went on to win three gold medals and one bronze in the Sochi Winter Games in 2014 for Russia.
But in South Korea, it hasn’t been as common an occurrence until recently. In the runup to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, the number of athletes gaining South Korean citizenship has soared. Where there was only one for the 2014 Sochi Games – Kong Sang-jeong, a Taiwanese short track skater of Korean descent – there are 19 athletes originally from other countries who have gained South Korean citizenship in order to represent South Korea on home turf.
Most of them are in ice hockey – seven men and four women- with four in biathlon, two in skiing, one in ice dancing and one in luge. A majority of the athletes are originally from Canada (eight total) with five from the U.S., four from Russia, one from Norway and one from Germany.
The purpose, of course, was to help bolster the South Korean national team as it competes on home soil for the first time in Winter Games history, especially in sports that have typically had little popularity in the country. For ice hockey, it’s the first time South Korea has qualified to compete – both in men’s and women’s.
But despite being in different disciplines and from different countries, all these athletes share the same sentiment – they are all honored and proud to represent South Korea in the first-ever Winter Games in the country’s history.
Here are stories from just some of these great athletes.
Returning to their roots – Women’s Ice Hockey
To both Danielle Im and Randi Heesoo Kim, coming to Korea to play for the national women’s ice hockey team was, in a sense, like coming home. Both are of Korean descent – Danielle’s parents immigrated to Canada from South Korea and Randi’s mother and grandmother are Korean – and both nearly didn’t believe it when they were first contacted by Kim Jung-min of the Korea Ice Hockey Association to gain citizenship and play on the national team for the 2018 Olympics.
“I didn’t believe it, but after checking it out, it was a serious offer and I wanted to accept it,” Danielle said after Kim contacted her through Facebook Messenger while she was playing hockey at Wilfrid Laurier College in Canada. She went as far as having her uncle, who lives in Seoul, meet with Kim just to make sure it was a real offer.
“I didn’t think this opportunity would come to me at all. It was amazing. Especially my mother and brother in Seoul were very happy,” she added. Danielle made the jump to Korea in July 2013 and eventually gained citizenship in January 2017.
For Randi, it helped that her sister Kelly was also contacted by the association with the same offer, though because she was recovering from a serious injury sustained while playing hockey for Brown University at the time, Kelly was unable to gain citizenship and join the team. Randi came in August 2015 – about five years after graduating from Harvard – and gained citizenship in April 2017.
“Hockey is the most important thing in my life. I really love hockey and it is a great honor to represent my mother and grandmother’s country through my favorite thing,” Randi said.
Hockey hasn’t been all that popular in South Korea, especially women’s hockey. There is currently no professional women’s team in the country, so it’s only natural that the Korea Ice Hockey Association would have to look outside the country to field enough strong players. Called scrappy and underdogs by media, both Danielle and Randi said that the team has really improved and come together in the past few years.
“The speed of development is amazing. In 2013, I didn’t think it could get so good in such a short time. And the development of each player is great,” Danielle said.
“It’s amazing that we’ve made great progress in a very short time,” Randi added. “It’s especially encouraging to see that the teen players’ potential is very high.”
Going into the Olympics, Randi said that for her personally, it’s a great honor to represent her mother and grandmother’s country.
“In honor of my mother and grandmother, I took the number 37 – the year my grandmother was born,” she said.
Both said playing in the Olympics had been a dream, though one they never thought would come true until that fateful day they were contacted by Kim.
“It’s a big dream for any athlete to participate in the Olympics. When I entered Wilfrid Laurier, I never thought I could go to the Olympics, but once I was contacted by the Korea Ice Hockey Association, my life changed dramatically,” Danielle said.
As for that they are looking forward to during the upcoming Games – Randi says she wants to make history and beat Japan for the first time ever, while Danielle hopes to show her pride in her Korean roots to her family.
“Also, I would be happy if the Olympic Games helped develop ice hockey for Korean girls,” she continued. She added that she would seriously think about continuing playing hockey here if the opportunity arises.
Randi builds off that sentiment, saying that after the Olympics, she hopes to lead young Korean women in the sport and continue to improve in her athletic career.
Korea is now home – Men’s Hockey Team
For three of the seven foreign athletes on the men’s national hockey team, Korea is now home for good.
“I feel most at home now that I am Korean,” said Michael Swift, originally from Canada. “I can now stand in the Korean line at immigration.”
Swift has been in Korea since August 2011 and plays for Gangwon High1 in the Asian Hockey League, admitting that he took the offer because he doesn’t like moving around a lot and wanted a team where he could stay for a long time.
National teammate Matt Dalton, originally from Canada as well, has been here since August 2014 and is the starting goalie. He hails from Anyang Halla. His Halla teammate, Mike Testwuide, originally from the U.S., arrived in August 2013.
All three came to Korea under different circumstances. Dalton was playing in the Russian League when he got the offer from Anyang, saying that while the overall level of the league and salary were good in Russia, the living conditions were not.
“Coming from Russia to Korea was like heaven. I didn’t know people here, but Korea is a westernized country and a place where foreigners can live very comfortably,” he said. “It’s easy to communicate in English, convenient to travel and has diverse food and shopping. I’m happy with my life in Korea.”
Testwuide had a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL right after graduating college, but said he felt it was too difficult to enter the North American league. When he wanted a change, the offer from Halla came in and he moved to Korea.
None of them had considered citizenship and the national team at the time they arrived, but all grabbed at the opportunity when it arose, some following in their teammates’ footsteps.
“In 2013, Brock Radunske (Halla forward) was given Korean nationality, so I thought I could have a chance too,” Swift said, with Testwuide saying it influenced him as well.
For Dalton, he was told by his Korean agent that he could participate in the PyeongChang Olympics if he naturalized.
“I was in Russia during the Sochi Olympics Games and I thought it would be a great honor to be part of the Olympics,” he said. “I thought I could help develop Korean ice hockey by playing on the national team.”
Swift echoed these thoughts, saying when he gained citizenship in 2014 the Korea Ice Hockey Association was spurring efforts to receive qualification for the Winter Games. “I thought it would be a great honor for me to play on the national team and help develop Korean ice hockey and win Olympic qualification.”
Testwuide views his participation on the national team as a chance to give back.
“I had a lot of help from people living here in Korea, and I thought this could be a good chance to give back,” he said.
Korea is seen as an underdog in hockey, but the team has been preparing hard which has led to some unexpected results. The team hopes that the popularity of the sport will only grow in the country from the Olympics and that more kids will want to play the sport.
As for this national team, since there aren’t many AHL teams in Korea to begin with, the roster for the national team hasn’t changed much over the years, meaning it has become a family. Thanks to head coach Jim Paek – a former NHL player and two-time Stanley Cup-winner – Korean ice hockey as made great progress as he imported an advanced ice hockey system and has been showing the strength and potential of Korean players, according to the KIHA. But according to the players, already hockey has been seeing a boost.
“Ice hockey is not the most popular sport in Korea, but I’m proud that I have been doing well. And, since I started playing on the national team, there have been a lot of articles about hockey and people are getting more interested,” Dalton said.
The team has been hard at work training in Jincheon since last December with specialized training kicking off in January. It is very much aware that PyeongChang is right around the corner with three friendlies lined up the week before the Games kick off on Feb. 9.
But what comes after the Games for these three now that they are Korean citizens?
Dalton said that he can’t really talk about the future too clearly. “But the obvious thing is that I’m currently playing here and I will do my best for Anyang Halla and the Korean national team,” he said.
Swift said that he was contacted by the Swiss League – which is very popular internationally – a few years ago, but as he said before, he doesn’t like moving teams.
“I will stay in Korea until I retire and I don’t know what will come after that,” he said.
For Testwuide, he just hopes to continue giving back.
“I want to stay in Korea while I’m playing. It’s a great honor to be in the Olympics, but I’m not here just for the Olympics. Since I have lived here and was helped by a lot of people, I hope that I will be able to return some of the help that I’ve received while playing on the national team,” he said.
Fulfilling a long-held dream – Ice Dance
Ice dancer Alexander Gamelin said competing in the Olympics has been his dream since he was 3 years old. “Having qualified for my first Olympics in my adopted home country is just a dream come true. I can’t want to perform in front of the home crowd and make Korea proud,” he said.
He started skating in 2000 with his twin sister Danielle and originally moved to South Korea to represent the country with his current partner Min Yura in 2015, after his sister retired from competitive skating. He said that he first set his sights on gaining citizenship shortly after partnering with Min when the two set the Olympics as a goal.
Under ISU rules, a pair can compete for a country at international competitions as long as one member is a citizen of that country. However, for the Olympics, both must be citizens.
Min and Gamelin are the 2017 South Korean champions in ice dance. In their second season together in 2016-17, they won bronze at the 2016 Lake Placid Ice Dance International and placed in the top six for all three ISU Challenger Series competitions. The pair qualified for PyeongChang at the 2017 CS Nebelhorn Trophy – the final qualifying event of the season – in September by placing fourth overall.
Gamelin said he hasn’t had any negative experiences skating for South Korea.
“Everything we’ve gone through has just been positive. The only small challenge was preparing for my citizenship review, like learning the Korean language and the anthem and other important knowledge I needed to know for the test, but I took that challenge as an opportunity to learn more,” he said. “Competing in Korea is always a wonderful experience.”
He added that his family and friends back home in the U.S. have always been supportive of his Olympic dreams so were thrilled for him when he gained citizenship and Olympic qualification. Beyond that, he says that Koreans have also been very accepting of him representing the country.
The pair have been training hard for PyeongChang and running their programs until they feel satisfied they are ready to show. Gamelin said they are also trying to stay healthy and rested so they can skate their best at the Games.
“You can expect us to put our hearts out on the ice and show Korea what we can really do,” he said.
Though what he is really looking forward to is the Opening Ceremony.
“I think the thing I’m looking forward to the most about the upcoming Games is walking out into the Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremonies and hearing the roar of the home crowd,” he said.
And while the Olympics were a major influence in his decision to gain citizenship, Gamelin said it wasn’t the only one.
“Obviously the biggest reason for me to get Korean citizenship was to represent the country at the Olympics, but Yura and I have also spoken seriously about starting an ice dance school in Korea when we retire from competition, because Korea has never really been big in the world of ice dance,” he said.
Before that day comes, though, the pair intend to compete in 2022 at the Beijing Winter Games. After that?
“I’m not entirely sure; I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now, my entire being is focused on my Olympics dreams.”