Apex’s Randi Griffin goes for Olympic hockey gold

Duke grad student will compete for unified Team Korea

Griffin (front, sixth from right, blonde) poses with national team members for a group photo with South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon during an inaugural ceremony ahead of 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, in Seoul, South Korea, January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

When the female figure skaters take the ice at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, it’s possible that Randi Griffin’s mother will take a moment to wonder what might have been.

When Randi was a young girl in Apex, her mother enrolled her in skating lessons. They didn’t take.

“For one thing, I hated the outfits,” Griffin said. “I’m a tomboy for life. I also never enjoyed having to get up smiling after crashing elbow-, knee- or butt-first onto the ice.”

Griffin preferred the action, and padding, that hockey provided. “My first Hurricanes game was in Greensboro, before they moved to PNC Arena, probably in 1998,” she said. “I loved so many of those players: Keith Primeau, Ron Francis, Sami Kapanen, Jeff O’Neill, Arturs Irbe. I knew the whole roster.”

There was no turning back for her.

“I remember the first time I saw a group of boys playing hockey after one of my figure skating lessons, and it immediately captured me,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘I can totally skate with them.’ After that, my figure skating coach would catch me racing around the ice pretending to play hockey when I was supposed to be practicing my routine, and she would be like ‘Randi Griffin, WHAT are you doing?’

There was just one problem: Her gender.

“Everyone, including my parents, just said, ‘Girls don’t play hockey,’” she said. “Then, when women’s hockey appeared for the first time in the 1998 Olympics, they couldn’t say that anymore. My parents bought me my first set of hockey gear. I think my mom was skeptical at first, but once she realized how much I loved it, she was very supportive.”

So, while Mom might feel pangs of regret at the start of Olympic figure skating in the Gangneung Ice Arena this year, more likely she’ll be several hundred yards to the northeast, in the Gangneung Hockey Centre, screaming her heart out for her daughter.

Griffin will compete for Olympic gold in women’s ice hockey. However, in an interesting turn of events, the native North Carolinian and Duke graduate student will play for Team Korea.

Four years ago, the Korean Ice Hockey Association began building their 2018 team and reached out to American and Canadian players with names that sounded Korean. “Griffin” didn’t exactly stand out, but they found Caroline Park, a former women’s hockey player at Princeton. She told them about the tough Harvard player with a Korean mom and American-sounding name.

On Park’s recommendation, Team Korea reached out to Griffin, who promptly ignored their email, at first thinking it was some type of scam. Eventually, the organization connected with her and invited her to help pioneer the national program.

“They offered to pay for me to visit Seoul in the summer and play in their summer women’s league,” Griffin recalled, “and I decided to go, not really knowing what to expect or whether anything would come of it.”

Other than a few “beer league” games, she hadn’t played much hockey since her Harvard career ended in 2010. She’d devoted her time since to coaching youth hockey and working on her doctorate at Duke. “It’s in biological anthropology, and I mostly do stuff about primate evolution and ecology,” she said.

Despite her family background, Griffin’s 2015 trip to Seoul was the first time she’d ever been to Korea.

“Before that, my exposure to Korean culture came through my grandparents, who live in a Korean neighborhood in Chicago, and the thing that rubbed off on me the most was the food,” she said. “I don’t speak Korean. I know basic survival phrases, numbers, and I can read, poorly. Luckily, most of my teammates speak at least some English, and about half are fluent.”

Park eventually learned how to use public transportation, got herself back into shape, and returned to play summer hockey the next year. In January 2017, she moved to Korea full-time to work with the national team.

Over that time, she’s helped to bring the native Korean members of the team up to speed on the game, with the help of Park and some other North American imports, a group that includes the team’s coach, Sarah Murray.

“It’s incredible how far they’ve come,” Griffin said. “When I first joined the team, what I really noticed was the lack of hockey sense and systems. The girls were really fast, and some of them had great hands, but it felt like chaos on the ice. We play a much more disciplined game now.”

Griffin has continued her Duke graduate work remotely. “I’m in the dissertation writing phase, and my advisers agreed that I could continue working on my dissertation while living in Korea and training with the team,” she said. “It certainly hasn’t been easy. I feel like I’m working all the time.”

Team Korea will also be the center of worldwide attention once the games start. The team is adding a group of North Korean players and will skate as a unified team, under one flag. For now, Griffin and the other players are trying to ignore the political ramifications and just focus on the ice.

Griffin is also trying to keep her emotions in check as she prepares for her Olympic dreams to come true, without the frilly outfits and glitter.

“There is this countdown clock we walk by every day on the way to the rink,” she said. “Every time I see it now, I get butterflies.”