With Sarah Murray at the helm of a squad of players brought together as a “political statement”, the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team caught the world’s attention at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018.
The PyeongChang 2018 unified Korean women’s ice hockey team was truly remarkable, and stood out from the rest in more than one way.
While only one of the eight women’s ice hockey teams competing at Sochi 2014 was coached by a woman (USA), the figure had risen to three in PyeongChang four years later, with host nation Korea among them, alongside Canada and Switzerland. In the spotlight, and tasked with blending players from either side of one of the world’s most politically charged borders, stood the then 29-year-old Sarah Murray.
With 23 South Korean and 12 North Korean players, Murray’s unified team took on the challenge of competing against the world’s best in women’s ice hockey. She had been sitting at her kitchen table eating breakfast as a 26-year-old with no previous coaching experience when the call came.
“I was like, ‘What?’ I instantly went on Wikipedia and started researching,” she said.
That Murray would venture into coaching was not a complete surprise, however, given the US-Canadian dual passport-holder’s background: her father, Andy Murray, had coached the Canadian men’s team, helping them win three World Championship gold medals, as well as multiple National Hockey League (NHL) clubs, so she had grown up playing ice hockey, later winning two national college titles in the USA and competing professionally in Switzerland. Yet female coaches represent on average only 10 per cent of accredited coaches at the Olympic Games.
It was 2014 and the Republic of Korea was looking for a head coach to lead the women’s team at their home Olympic Games. And, instead of returning to Switzerland to continue her career as a player, Sarah Murray opted for a move into coaching and relocated to Seoul. Her father, with his wealth of experience, quickly became an important phone-based mentor.
“It’s funny,” Sarah said. “As a player, I didn’t want to hear his advice and now, as a coach, I’m open to everything and his critiques. It’s been great. I find myself hearing him in the back of my head sometimes when things are developing. I hear phrases that he would repeat to me over and over and over again. Now, I’m saying them. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m like my dad’.”
Just weeks before the PyeongChang Games were to open, it was decided that Murray’s team would be joined by players from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Despite initially experiencing mixed feelings for the sudden change that would make her team one of the Games’ most important, Murray and her new group had to make the best of the situation.
“Our team being put together was a political statement, but now that the team is together, we are just one team,” she said, two days before competition began.
She soon realised that the players from both divided, neighbouring countries were more similar than she had expected.
“We were floundering at the beginning, but once we played together as one team we established camaraderie and we faced each other on a human level,” she said later.
With a common, competitive goal, the two groups merged, and life away from the ice brought them even closer, as the players lived, ate and laughed together between training sessions and matches.
“The South players helped the North players. They would sit next to them and teach them. After two days, the Northern players knew more than our (Southern) players did. They’ve been really working hard. It’s the players that make this work. I didn’t expect them to be the same as our players. And when you see them sitting together at lunch, you can’t tell who’s from the South and who’s from the North. They’re the same.”
Although the team ultimately lost their five matches, finishing last in the Olympic tournament, they were successful in spreading a message of peace, unity and hope beyond the Korean peninsula. Murray’s participation also showed something else – that a woman in her 20s could step into one of the Games’ most complex coaching roles.
“When I was put in charge of a unified team that was decided upon as a political statement just ahead of the Olympics, I didn’t know how I was going to unite the team,” Murray said, shedding a tear at the end of her players’ final match of the competition. But I treated the South and North Korean players equally, and the players were totally committed to following along. The players were the real heroes.”
No doubt, but Murray is herself an inspiration.