Biography, History, Non-Fiction

A Team of Their Own by Seth Berkman

I begged and begged our sales rep for an advance copy of this book, and it kept getting postponed again. And again. And again. Which meant by the time it found it’s way into my hands, I just wasn’t really in the mood for it, with the Winter Olympics a year and a half over when it arrived. But as hockey season progressed, and the anniversary of the Miracle on Ice approaching, I pulled it off the shelf and kicked myself for waiting so long to read it.

Synopsis

From the Front Flap:
Two weeks before the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korea’s women’s hockey team was forced into a predicament that no president, ambassador, or general had been able to resolve in the sixty-five years since the end of the Korean War. Against all odds, the group of young women were able to bring North and South Korea closer than ever before.

The team was built for this moment. They had been brought together from across the globe and from a wide variety of backgrounds – concert pianist, actress, high school student, convenience store worker – to make history. Now the special kinship they had developed would guide them through the biggest challenge of their careers. Suddenly thrust into an international spotlight, they showed the powerful meaning of what a unified Korea could resemble.

In A Team of Their Own, Seth Berkman goes behind the scenes to tell the story of these young women as they became a team amid immense political pressure and personal turmoil, and ultimately gained worldwide acceptance on a journey that encapsulates the truest meanings of sports and family.

Review

It’s probably a well known fact at this point that I love books about ice hockey. I prefer history and team based books to memoirs and biographies of individual players and coaches, but I’ll read it all. Until I was about halfway through this book, I didn’t think any sports book, let alone ice hockey book would unseat The Boys of Winter from its top spot as my all time favorite.

From the first pages of A Team of Their Own, I knew I would love it. I followed the story in the lead up to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and while my initial interest was in the USA women’s team and my dream of them finally beating Canada (which they did, yay!), I was pulled in by the story of two sisters playing for two different Olympic teams.

In Olympics women’s hockey coverage, traditionally there have been two main story lines: the USA vs. Canada, and everyone else. The latter rarely sees news coverage here in the states, but with both sisters being raised in the states, it was the story that first caught my attention. And then was the announcement about the joint team. That was a complete shocker.

I’m a bit of a nut about women’s sports and typically prefer a woman’s perspective when covering said sports. Seth, being a Korean American journalist, was the perfect narrator for the story about these truly amazing women. He went to the Olympics as a reporter for the New York Times and turned the experience into a soul searching and heartwrenching biography of the women’s team.

Women’s hockey is at best a mostly ignored sport with some financial backing, and at worst, completely ignored and ridiculed. The USA and Canada fall into the former, South Korea into the latter. The women who played, gave up lives, loves, careers, everything, to pursue the sport that made up their own lifeblood. They played into terrible hand-me-down gear from the men’s squads, were ridiculed by their families, friends, and government officials, and used by said officials when it was convenient to them and their cause.

The South Korean women’s route to the Olympics had a shaky start. As the host nation, they were to automatically receive a spot in the Olympics tourney. But they had a problem. They had never won a game against an international component and had been outscored in tournaments triple digits to single digits. KIHA, the South Korean hockey organization, told them they had to prove they could complete on an international level. They didn’t have to prove they could beat the USA or Canada, but they did have to prove they could compete without embarrassment.

Enter Sarah Murray, the South Korean women’s very own Herb Brooks. Sarah is the daughter of a former NHL coach and graduate of Shattuck St. Mary’s, THE ice hockey high school in the USA. She played with members of the USA hockey team who would also be at the Olympics. Enter the Imports, the USA and Canadian citizens who could claim South Korean heritage, either by birth (and then adopted by USA families), or by virtue of their parents’ emigration from Korea to the USA.

But no one asked the women of the South Korean team if they wanted an American coach and a bunch of imports joining their family, their team of many years. And certainly no one asked them about the merger with North Korea before it happened.

Sojung, the fearless veteran goalie who had given her entire adolescence and early adulthood to the game, who played abroad in North America, guided the team both on and off the ice. Soojin, an accomplished concert pianist, gave up her career to pursue her on ice passion. Jongah, the baby of the team, looked up to them as her own personal heroes. They exuded confidence on the ice, and showed kindness and compassion of the ice.

These particular qualities led to the women’s ultimate success in integrating a team with a major language gap, as well as making the North Korean women feel welcome when they were forced to all come together and achieve some measure of success after only playing together for two weeks. The women of the South Korean women’s hockey team had to give up their chance of even winning a game at the Olympics and settle for the dream of even scoring a single goal. They had to constantly fight against assumptions and negativity, were discounted by the very association meant to protect them, and were bullied into silence for even trying to stand up to the patriarchy that made their lives so endlessly difficult.

I learned more about South Korean culture and societal norms than I expected. But what I hadn’t anticipated, was to fall in love with these amazing and remarkable women who sacrificed so much of their lives, their souls to play a game that was political statement, more than genuine competition. But they walked into the Olympic arena with kindness and warmth in their hearts, a genuine love for each other and the game. And that is something that no political action of governing sports agency can take away from them.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through IndieBound or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

The March New Releases Post will be up on Tuesday, March 3, 2020!

2 thoughts on “A Team of Their Own by Seth Berkman”

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